NEW BEDFORD — Students will head back to school next month with a requirement to wear protective face masks, amid concerns about the late-summer rise in COVID-19 cases.

The policy, which retains the same protocols the schools were using last academic year, was affirmed in a School Committee vote this week.

The School Committee’s decision comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks. In June, when relaxing the school mask mandate this fall was considered almost a certainty, COVID-19 cases in New Bedford had fallen to an average of less than five per day, according to the state Department of Public Health (DPH) 

Now, with the more transmissible delta variant becoming more prevalent, local cases are on the rise again. The DPH has reported an average of just under 40 cases per day in New Bedford since Aug. 1. 

“That’s exponential growth,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell, who also chairs the School Committee. “What we’re trying to figure out is: what precautions do we take so we don’t have to go back to a more restrictive environment?” 

“If we want kids in their classroom, learning full time, a mask is what is going to do it.”

Colleen Dawicki, vice chair of the School Committee

Amid the rise in cases, New Bedford’s vaccination rate remains at roughly 43%, lagging behind the statewide rate of about 65%, according to the DPH. And for the second August in a row, school leaders are scrambling to balance learning and child safety.

“We want our kids to have the best access to learning this year. We don’t want our kids to shift to online learning,” said Colleen Dawicki, vice chairperson of the School Committee. “If we want kids in their classroom, learning full time, a mask is what is going to do it.”

School Committee members said the mask requirement will be reviewed and possibly withdrawn if COVID-19 cases decline in the coming weeks. But the next discussion will take place at the board’s Sept. 13 meeting, nearly two weeks after classes begin on Sept. 2.

“This just means stay tuned,” said Josh Amaral, a member of the School Committee, on the decision, which was made Monday night.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Anderson originally recommended the schools adopt a policy that would “strongly recommend” students wear masks this fall. That would have meant revoking the current policy.

“We have no evidence this past year that there was any transmission of the virus in our school building,” Superintendent Anderson said, staking his initial position. “That doesn’t mean students didn’t get infected … but it wasn’t transmitted in the building.” 

Ultimately, the decision came down to a complicated motion to table the proposed amendment to the existing mask mandate. The School Committee voted 3-3 on the motion, which Mayor Mitchell explained to mean that the existing mask mandate would remain in place until further review. 

Sports and all other extracurriculars are still set to begin as scheduled this fall, committee members added.

“This is a very contentious issue … it would be great if the cases came crashing down in the next couple weeks,” Mayor Mitchell concluded. He added: “Things are going to be a lot more normal [this school year]. The one thing that is going to remain in place are the masks.”

Superintendent Anderson issued a memo to staff in late May, after Gov. Charlie Baker lifted mask requirements for businesses and public gatherings but left them in place for public transportation, inside school buildings and in healthcare settings.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education policy noted that face coverings were still required indoors for staff and students of K-12 schools and early education providers.

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