In Kingston, dueling policies over masks

The Kingston Board of Health voted to require masks in schools last week and the following day the Kingston School Committee voted not to.

The Board of Health has no mechanism to enforce its mandate, but health board chairman Joe Casna said if school officials ignore it, “they’re acting at their own peril.”

Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision not to mandate masks in schools but to leave the decision to individual districts pushed this year’s most contentious debate to the local level. But sometimes “leave it to the locals” is not so simple, if local boards cannot agree. One observer described the cross-jurisdictional battles between health and education officials as a “pissing match.” But it is a serious one, with battle lines drawn over vital issues of health, safety, education, and personal choice.

It is a battle seen clearly in Kingston, a South Shore coastal town that is predominantly white and well-off.

The Board of Health voted 4-1 on August 9 to mandate masks in school buildings, with exceptions for eating, drinking, and medical reasons. Casna said he sees it as a “no-brainer” when the health and safety of children are involved. While he knows some people disagree with a mask mandate, “I’m on the board of health, not the board of popularity,” Casna said.

On August 10, the Kingston School Committee, at a joint meeting with three other regional school committees, voted 5-0 to adopt the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines. The guidelines “strongly recommend” masks in elementary schools and for older, unvaccinated students and staff, but do not require them. In July, the school committee rescinded the mask mandate it imposed last year, so the latest vote leaves the mask decision up to each family.

School Committee vice chair Jeanne Coleman said masks “have been a hindrance to learning,” with children being unable to read facial cues and facial expressions. She thinks it is illogical once social distancing rules are lifted to require masks in the classroom when students will be sitting next to each other unmasked during lunch. “Families should have the option to choose whether to send children in a mask or not,” Coleman said.

The contradiction upset parents like Joshua Warren, a former Kingston select board chair. Warren kept his kindergarten son remote last year and is scared to send him into a first-grade classroom this year with no social distancing and the virulent Delta variant circulating. Warren said he was relieved when the Board of Health voted for a mask mandate – and it is beyond him to understand how the school committee disregarded public health guidance. “It’s dangerous to send a child into a classroom unvaccinated with 20 or 30 kids who are unvaccinated and maybe unmasked,” Warren said.

The question of who has jurisdiction remains unresolved in Kingston. The superintendent said the school committee is continuing to meet, but referred questions about who has jurisdiction to the state departments of education and public health, which declined to comment.

Attorney Jason Talerman, whose firm represents 23 municipalities including Kingston, said the question of jurisdiction is coming up in many communities. Generally, the school committee controls school facilities, but the Board of Health can promulgate regulations covering schools when there is a demonstrable risk.

One resolution to the issue – one many Democratic lawmakers, teachers’ unions, and some school officials and public health experts want – is for the state to set the rules.

“I think school boards would be happy to be able to say we’re doing this because we’re required to do it by the state,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “They’d rather be forced to make an unpopular decision because they had no alternative than to get half the community angry at them.”

But Talerman noted that Massachusetts is a “home rule state,” so towns generally have a right to make their own decisions in areas like public health.

Baker said Monday that he is not considering changing the state’s mask guidance. Baker, a former Swampscott selectman himself, reiterated that his general position is to set a statewide standard but “let the locals make the call that makes the most sense to them.” 

“Giving locals the opportunity to own the decision they make is a big and important issue,” Baker said.



Somerset exodus: The South Coast town, caught in the spin cycle of a national debate over energy and climate, is now facing an exodus of town employees. Over the last three months, the police chief was replaced, the town planner was let go, and the town manager announced his retirement. The building inspector says he left last week to take a job elsewhere before he was terminated. All of the departures coincide with a political makeover of the town and its Board of Selectmen that was triggered by outrage over the launch of a scrap metal business at Brayton Point, a massive property on the Taunton River that used to be home to one of New England’s largest coal-fired power plants and was supposed to be repurposed for offshore wind.

— Paul Boucher, Somerset’s building commissioner, says he left because he couldn’t stand the toxic atmosphere in town anymore. He says the scrap metal business wasn’t violating the town’s noise and dust standards, but residents disputed that. He says his car was vandalized, he was personally accosted, and a man sent him a package filled with glitter in the shape of penises. “I’m going to a place where they want me,” Boucher said. “People are nasty in this town.”

— The new members of the Board of Selectmen say all of the departures are random and unrelated, and may have more to do with the town’s financial plight than anything else. Selectman Allen Smith says the town planner was let go because Somerset could no longer afford to pay her salary.  Read more.


Mass. casinos rebound: After a slow June, the two Massachusetts casinos and the lone slots parlor reported strong numbers for July, with the two casinos setting records and the Plainridge Park slots parlor posting a whopping return of $479.72 per slot machine. The industry views $300 per machine as a target, says Paul DeBole. Read more.





Mask violations can come with a $1,000 fine in Northampton. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)


US officials are expected to recommend COVID booster shots for all Americans eight months after vaccination. (Associated Press)

Gov. Charlie Baker said despite a rise in COVID cases, he is not considering changing his mask guidance. (Gloucester Daily Times)

There have been seven deaths from COVID-19 at the North Adams Commons and Nursing Rehabilitiation Center as part of an outbreak in which 57 residents and 13 staff tested positive. (Berkshire Eagle)


US Rep. Seth Moulton, who served in Iraq as a Marine, calls the situation in Afghanistan a “disaster” and urges the president to evacuate US allies. The mother of a Beverly soldier killed in Afghanistan says the situation “breaks my heart.” (Salem News) State Rep. Harold Naughton, who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, calls it “devastating.” (Telegram & Gazette)

The chaotic end to US involvement in Afghanistan has badly undercut one of President Biden’s main selling points in his campaign against Donald Trump — that he would restore competence to the White House. (Washington Post

A New York man who supported the Proud Boys group pleads guilty to threatening to kill Raphael Warnock, an incoming Black senator from Georgia, during the assault on the Capitol on January 6. (New York Times)


Mayoral hopeful John Barros is proposing separating Boston’s troubled Madison Park Technical Vocational High School from the Boston Public Schools and having it run by an independent board. (Boston Globe)

Boston city councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julie Mejia plan to file a home rule petition to restore an elected school committee for the Boston Public Schools, while an advocacy group wants to put an advisory question on the November ballot asking city residents if they support such a change. (Boston Herald


Duxbury schools are paying $300 an hour to public relations firm Ellis Strategies to handle several recent scandals. (Patriot Ledger)


Two insurance companies that issued $100 million in bonds to renovate the Wollaston MBTA station are suing the agency over delays and project changes, which drove up costs. (Patriot Ledger)


New Bedford’s fishermen are worried about plans to build offshore wind projects off the coast of New York. (Standard-Times)


In another case that raises questions about police response to mental health crises, the sisters of a woman killed by Saugus police who were called to her house on Saturday say they knew she suffered from mental illness and her killing could have been avoided. (Boston Globe