With Covid cases dropping sharply on the Island, health officials are poised to reconsider the school mask mandate that has been in place for most of the past two years.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts commissioner of education announced that the state would no longer require masks as of Feb. 28, but the final decision is up to individual schools and districts.

Last week, Island school committee members split on when to drop the mandates in their respective schools. The Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Up-Island school committees voted to rescind their towns’ mask mandates in line with the state, while Tisbury’s committee voted to suspend the mandate but reimpose it if Covid-19 infection rates on the Vineyard exceed five per cent.

Only the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee voted, 5-3, not to end its masking policy, though on Thursday night it voted unanimously to suspend the mask mandate, “commensurate with the board of health.”

“Things could go sideways, who knows,” said Robert Lionette of the decision to suspend rather than rescind the policy. “I don’t want to leave us in a compromised position.”

“We will just follow the lead of the board of health and hope that in no time we will be able to fully rescind this policy,” Amy Houghton said.

The final decision on whether, and when, to end the mask mandate, however, rests with the individual town health agents. As public places, school buildings remain governed by the Island boards of health.

And with students readying to depart for their week’s winter recess, health officials pledged to come up with better guidance before schools reopen on Monday, March 7.

In an interview with the Gazette on Thursday, Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said the health and safety committee had met earlier that day to talk about the mask mandate. Formed early in the pandemic, the committee brings together health agents, school nurses and school administrators.

“We’re just advisory,” said Ms. Valley, adding that the committee recommends the high school join the town school districts in rescinding its mask mandate, subject to the all-Island boards of health doing the same.

“Our recommendation for them would be to follow the lead of the elementary schools and go with the boards of health determination to lift the mask mandate, with the understanding that we would continue to look at … [Covid-19] mitigation strategies, school testing and things like that,” Ms. Valley said.

Members of the all-Island board have been ill or on vacation over the past couple of weeks, but Ms. Valley told the Gazette Thursday that the group is planning a meeting sometime next week to determine its next move on masks.

“We’ll have an answer before school starts up again,” she said.

In a statement from health agents issued last week, boards of health said they hoped to extend the mask mandate in schools until March 28.

“We believe it is important to keep the school mandate in place for at least three weeks after school vacation to ensure that we don’t experience a surge of cases as we did after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,” the statement reads, in part.

Edgartown health agent Matt Poole, who attended last Thursday’s school committee meeting, told the group that the boards of health would review the policy and timeline when they next met.

“There absolutely is an interest in... relaxing the mandates or suspending the mandates,” Mr. Poole said. “We want to time it right, and we think it’s important to do it in unison.”
And on Thursday Ms. Valley said the proposed date of March 28 to end the mask mandate could change.

“Nothing is carved in stone,” she said. “That needs to be discussed with the board of health members.”

In an abbreviated weekly report issued Monday, the Island boards of health reported 28 new cases of Covid-19 for the week ending Saturday, Feb. 19, down from 74 the week before.