Berkshire Hills school committee considering vaccine mandate for students
An aerial view of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District campus in Great Barrington
GREATER BARRINGTON – The Berkshire Hill Regional School Committee will seek public input on establishing a policy on whether to require COVID-19 vaccination for the approximately 1,200 students in the district. Almost all teachers and staff at Berkshire Hills are vaccinated.
At last night’s school committee meeting, Superintendent Peter Dillon offered a few options for the district. Two examples in particular – the Belchertown and Amherst school districts – were cited.
In Belchertown, a town of about 15,000 in the county of Hampshire, a divided school committee voted 3-2 last month require that students be immunized in order to participate in activities that do not earn them school credit. In other words, vaccinations are only required to participate in extracurricular and athletic activities, but unvaccinated students can still take college courses.
To the west, the Amherst school committee voted unanimously in September require students aged 16 and over to be vaccinated in order to continue attending classes. The vote follows a vote by the city health council that, after a request from the public school district, added any COVID-19 vaccine receiving full FDA approval to the list of vaccinations students must take as a condition registration.
See the video below of the second half of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee meeting last night via Zoom. Fast-forward to 11:45 p.m. to see the discussion on COVID vaccine mandates:
Dillon leaned towards the Belchertown approach, in part because it still allowed students to attend classes and did not actually deprive them of an education. Dillon surmised that the Belchertown move seemed to divide the difference between Amherst and do nothing, while largely protecting Belchertown schools from litigation.
“So it’s an approach, and it’s actually one that I would favor or recommend,” Dillon told the committee.
The Berkshire Hills Regional School District is in an unusual position. Its schools are all located in the town of Great Barrington. Of the other two towns in the district, West Stockbridge, like Great Barrington, has its own board of health. But Stockbridge is part of the TriTown Health Department, which provides health services to Stockbridge, Lee and Lenox.
Dillon said he spoke with Great Barrington health worker Rebecca Jurczyk and Michael Lanoue, who chairs the city health council. Both recommended that the board of health meet with the school committee to discuss the matter.
Dillon said he and his staff could write a policy within two weeks and let the public know that the policy, if deemed acceptable by the school committee, would be voted on within a few weeks. Legal advice will also be sought.
Committee chair Steve Bannon has requested that the draft COVID vaccine policy be forwarded to the school committee’s policy subcommittee for preliminary review and then discussed at the next full school committee meeting on November 18.
Bannon suggested holding a community forum to discuss the change and added that he believed the best course of action would be to ensure that any COVID vaccine mandate, if passed by the school committee, comes into effect for the start of the school year in 2022. The committee should prepare for a substantial number of participants.
âIf you remember when the pandemic first hit and there was a lot of controversy, we had 270 strange people in a Zoom meeting, so it will likely have that kind of attendance,â said Bannon.
Great Barrington’s committee member Rich Dohoney noted that the district already has a vaccination policy in place for other diseases. For example, parents of students registering for the first time in the district must present documentation proving that their child is immunized against a wide variety of diseases, including diphtheria, pertussis “and other communicable diseases that may be specified from time to time by [state] Department of Health. “
Dohoney cited the district policy stating that “exceptions to the requirement will only be granted by written advice from a physician that” the vaccination will not be in the best interests of the child, or by the parents or guardians of the student declaring that the vaccination or vaccination is against the religious belief of the student or parent.
“So to say it’s kind of a novel [policy] or illegal is just plain wrong, âDohoney said, his voice rising in indignation. “We are doing this now for a bunch of diseases that I have never heard of, when 700,000 people have died in this country from the disease we are talking about, so people have to stand up and start making decisions, but to phrase it as some sort of bureaucratic mystery misinforms the public.
The policy subcommittee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, November 10 at 6 p.m. This group will develop a policy that the school committee will review at its next meeting on Thursday, November 18.