The Missing Mask Mandate at GHS

Why was it so late?


Mask station inside of the Main Office at GHS.

Emily Hughes, Editor

As students and faculty returned to GHS last week after a long, relaxing Winter Vacation, many suspected that the COVID-19 case count would increase. However, nobody could have predicted the dramatic spike in cases across the entire district. Now, students, teachers, and parents alike are wondering: are we taking enough precautions to protect our community?

As of January 10th, 2022, the official positive case count for COVID-19 within the GHS community alone has reached 170 cases. Across the entire district, as of January 10th, the count has reached 700 — nearly three times the total case count since the tail-end of the previous school year in June 2021.

All students are aware of the permanent mask mandate that was implemented during the 2020-2021 school year, both during the hybrid learning phase and the fully in-person learning phase. For this school year, however, the SAU school board decided that masks would be optional for GHS. Many students took advantage of this to free themselves of their masks (including myself for a while). Others still chose to wear a mask, and shockingly, the divide between those that masked up and those who didn’t was not terribly severe.

Why the SAU chose for masks to be optional this year is understandable. Vaccination rates in September were increasing steadily in New Hampshire, with the Department of Health and Human Services (NHDHHS) reporting nearly 750,000 New Hampshire residents being fully vaccinated. With a booster shot finally being approved by the FDA on November 19th, things were starting to finally look positive for our schools. However, after Winter Break and returning to school on January 3rd, we’ve come crashing back down, and unfortunately, the SAU was extremely late to take any sort of action.

On January 11th, 2022, SAU 19 Superintendent Brian Balke sent out an automated phone call to notify parents and teachers that, starting January 12th, masks would be required at all times when inside of Goffstown High School. This universal masking will last from January 12th to Wednesday, January 26th.

As I stated previously, nobody could have predicted a total of 700 positive COVID-19 cases in SAU 19 within the first 10 days of the new year. However, the school board should have taken the initiative to assume that with many families traveling out of state, traveling internationally, and interacting with family and friends who may or may not be vaccinated, the transmission rate of COVID-19 during Winter Break would skyrocket. The board missed a crucial opportunity to welcome students back from Winter Break in a safe manner, and instead decided to believe that everything would be alright in the end. News flash: things are not alright, and nothing — not even the CDC — can justify how late the board’s action is.

Every weekday, faculty and parents are sent an email updating them about how many positive cases have been reported that day. This is followed by lengthy paragraphs detailing how the NHDHHS does not require contact tracing, but students who feel sick should stay home. The email states that “The safety of our children and employees is our top priority…to prevent further spread of the disease in our community, the following precautions to prevent the spread…of the disease are shared.” Up until January 11th, the team recommended that you wear a cloth face mask, but did not require you to wear one. Meanwhile, the CDC “recommends universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 years and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” Comparing this recommendation to the actions taken by the SAU, it leaves many students to wonder why we as a community did not mandate masks as soon as we returned from Winter Break.

Many students across all grades are worried that school will return to fully remote learning based on our case count and the extremely late 2-week mask mandate. Masks have been shown to effectively reduce transmission rates, yet the district lacked the responsibility to enforce a mask mandate until we were counting onslaughts of new cases every day.

I reached out to Superintendent Brian Balke for a comment regarding the decision to not implement universal masking starting January 3rd, however he did not respond. It is imperative to note, though, that the Administrative Team at GHS does not have the power to require universal masking. Nobody can blame the school itself for the tardiness of a mask mandate. Mask stations can be found at all main entrances of GHS, making available to students throughout this entire year. It seems now that more students will be making use of them, and hopefully, this will be for the better.

Despite not commenting, Mr. Balke has repeatedly said to the community that the SAU will not be returning to fully remote learning. This I completely support: with how many students struggled to adjust to such a foreign system, it would create more chaos for the SAU to deal with. If the plan is to stick with in-person learning, though, the appropriate safety precautions need to be taken.

As of January 12th, the count at GHS has reached 201 active positive COVID-19 cases, making the grand total for the SAU roughly 803. From one concerned student to the SAU executive board, I ask this: when will the safety of students become an immediate priority?