Mask battle moves to classrooms as No. Smithfield students head back to school

Mask battle moves to classrooms as No. Smithfield students head back to school

NORTH SMITHFIELD – For many North Smithfield families, last Tuesday, Aug. 31, was a first day of school like any other as students returned eager to see friends, visit their classrooms and catch up with teachers after a long summer.

For a handful of students and parents, however, the classroom became the latest battleground in the ongoing debate over face masks.

According to Supt. Michael St. Jean, the vast majority of students have complied with the mandate to wear face masks in school. Gov. Dan McKee issued the mandate late last month shortly after the North Smithfield School Committee voted to require masks as part of its reopening policy.

However, a small number of students have resisted the policy. St. Jean said school administrators spoke with students last week who arrived to school without masks or removed them during the school day.

“At the very beginning, the first couple of days, there were a couple of students that came to the school, didn’t have a mask on or removed it at one point. And mostly it’s been the principal or the assistant principal would talk to that student, they put the mask on and they went back to the class or where they needed to be,” he said.

St. Jean said the focus has been on de-escalating the situation rather than disciplining students. The district’s code of conduct, he said, allows administrators to issue disciplinary actions such as detentions and suspensions in cases of insubordination or disorderly conduct, but the district has not yet taken any formal disciplinary actions with regard to masks.

St. Jean said teachers also frequently have to remind students to wear their masks properly, above their noses.

“We’re following the governor’s executive order, and it’s basically you need to have a mask to enter the building and remain in the classroom. We’ve been adhering to that,” he said.

Several parents reached out to The Valley Breeze this week to share their views about the mask policy. Danielle Ferguson said her son was among “a handful of kids” at North Smithfield High School who chose not to follow the mask mandate. He was sent home from school last Tuesday due to a combination of not wearing a mask and concerns by administrators about a possible COVID-19 exposure, she said. He returned to school the following day, but was sent to the office several times during the week for not wearing a mask in class.

“He told me school is interrupted all day long by teachers disciplining for masks,” she said.

Other parents described students sent to the office or told they could receive detention after teachers asked them multiple times to pull their mask up over their nose. Several parents said they felt teachers were more focused on enforcing the mask policy than teaching students.

“I gave it to him as an option. I said you can either wear it or don’t wear it, it’s highly up to you, I’ll stand by you whatever your decision is,” said Debra Gianfranco, a parent of a 7th-grader who said her son came home with headaches after wearing a mask last year.

Another parent, Stephen Vowels, alleges a teacher “grabbed (his) son and jerked him backward” after his son responded “no, thank you” to being told to put on a mask in the high school hallway. Vowels said the teacher has denied doing anything other than tapping a student’s backpack, and administrators have told him there is no video footage to verify the incident.

St. Jean said he couldn’t comment on the specific incident, but added that it’s been frustrating to watch how stories about mask-related issues have evolved on social media.

The debate places the North Smithfield School Department at the center of a culture war between legal mandates and families who feel that mask-wearing is a matter of individual rights. At a School Committee meeting in August, several parents said they had no intention of sending their children to school with masks regardless of the district and statewide policy. Ferguson is part of a statewide group of parents who plan to sue the state for issuing the mask mandate.

Stephen Corriveau, a member of the Town Council who has been vocal about the issue, said he and his family are now considering homeschooling options for his high school-aged son due to the mask mandate. Corriveau said he’s been contacted by several parents concerned about the district’s enforcement of the policy and has communicated with school administrators to say he doesn’t think they should suspend a student or ban them from sports for not following it.

“For the image of the school, I didn’t think that would be a good precedent to set. That could do irreparable damage to a child,” he said.

Asked whether contacting administrators over other families’ concerns could be considered overstepping his position on the Town Council, Corriveau acknowledged he cannot dictate the decisions of administrators or the School Committee but said he worries about the image the conflict is creating for the town.

While stories about mask incidents have dominated social media, St. Jean said the majority of the school week went smoothly as most students followed the mask mandate. He said he hopes the issue calms down in the next few weeks as students adjust to the new year.

“What’s happening in North Smithfield is no different than anywhere else,” he said. “I can’t put a percentage on this, but the vast majority, they’re just doing fine and they’re coming in, they wear a mask.”

Comments

These are the same people and families that made spectacles of themselves at the School Committee meeting in August. If a child cannot conform to a state mask mandate in the 7th grade, we are in big trouble. This is not about well being. This is a culture war. If you do not like the rule keep them home and school them yourselves. And by all means the school should send them home.

Non compliant students should be sent home immediately. Call the parents so they have to leave work to come pick up their child & take them home until they can be 100% compliant with the mask mandate. If parents refuse to deal with getting their kids to be compliant, simple solution, keep them home & get a private tutor or better yet, home school your child.

Parents instilling this contrarian BS in their kids should be charged as child abuse. If you don't care enough to educate your own kids at home, don't infect them with your Toxic social media behavior and make them think that is normal. Glad the teachers are handling this, though one sympathizes with anyone having to deal with rabid antivaxxers.

This is a great exercise for the future. Marching in "lock step". Remember, the government that can give you everything you want can take everything you have.

Ask Barrington Police Sergeant Gino Caputo's family if masks and antivaccination mindsets are proper for our societies health. See you doctor and talk with them, wear a mask and PLEASE get vaccinated.