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Massachusetts will end its mask mandate for all students and faculty in K-12 schools and for licensed child care providers on Feb. 28, following the route taken by several other states as COVID-19 cases drop after this winter’s omicron-fueled surge.
In a statement Wednesday morning, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced the state will not renew the mandate when it expires at the end of the month.
Instead, state education regulators say students and staff should wear masks in “certain scenarios consistent with DESE’s COVID protocols.”
“With Massachusetts a national leader in vaccinating kids, combined with our robust testing programs, it is time to lift the mask mandate in schools and give students and staff a sense of normalcy after dealing with enormous challenges over the past two years,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. “We have all the tools to keep schools safe as we move into dealing with the next phase of managing COVID.”
Once the mandate is lifted, masking in schools will become a decision left for local officials; DESE said districts are free to establish their own requirements, should they want to do so.
Child care providers will also be allowed to develop their own policies. More guidance for those programs will be released by the Department of Early Education and Care next week.
However, in specific instances, masks will still be needed, including when a student tests positive for COVID.
In that scenario, the student must stay home for five days before returning to school, at which point they will need to wear a mask for the following five days, Riley said at a press conference.
Masks will also continue to be required on school buses, as per federal order.
Riley could not speak to specifics surrounding masks in indoor school sports as DESE does not govern the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Riley said his department is in “constant communication” with the organization and he expected the association would make a statement in the near future.
“In a state with one of the highest vaccine acceptance rates in the country, and the state with the second highest vaccination rates among 5- to 11-year-olds, we must navigate the careful transition into opening up our society while simultaneously employing public health mitigation strategies,” Education Secretary James Peyser said in a statement. “We are moving from mask requirement to mask optional, and we want school districts to move along with the state by making it optional, while still creating supportive environments for students and staff who choose to wear a mask.”
Wednesday’s announcement comes after several governors in the Northeast announced easing mask requirements in the coming weeks, including the lifting of face-covering requirements in schools in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
On Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced her state would drop its mask mandate for businesses, but she held off on granting the same changes in schools, citing the need to further analyze public health data.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also continuing to recommend that students, teachers, and staff wear masks when inside school buildings, regardless of vaccination status.
Even with more states easing mask policies, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Reuters on Tuesday the agency stands by its guidance and that “now is not the moment” to drop mandates.
“I know people are interested in taking masks off. I too am interested. That would be one marker that we have much of the pandemic behind us,” Walenksy said in an interview.
“Right now our CDC guidance has not changed … We continue to endorse universal masking in schools,” she added.
Baker, on Wednesday, defended moving forward with lifting masking rules though, stating the CDC must contend with health data and varying virus situations across 50 states when issuing guidance.
“Most states don’t have the kind of surveillance testing program that we have in place,” Baker said. “Most states don’t have pool testing. Most states don’t have take-home tests.”
Last month, the Baker administration extended the mandate through Feb. 28, just before the rule was about to expire amid the worst of the omicron-fueled virus surge. Not all schools have been required to keep people masked-up, however. Schools where 80 percent or more of the student body and staff were vaccinated were allowed to forgo the measure in the fall, if they sought a green light to do so from state regulators.
Hopkinton High School was the first in the state to be given such approval in October. As of this week, there were at least 42 schools across the state who were also given exemptions.
Officials said Wednesday they had so far received 68 requests in total from schools and are in the process of reviewing 21 pending requests before the mandate expires.
The mask requirement, like many COVID-related public health safety precautions adopted throughout the pandemic, faced criticism from vocal opponents. Parent groups and others raised consistent concerns that masks disrupt important social interactions and hamper smooth communication for students, particularly young children who rely on facial expressions and speech for development.
Although in the minority, critics lobbed at least six lawsuits across the state last fall in unsuccessful attempts to thwart the policy.
Riley, on Wedneday, indirectly acknowledged some of the challenges masks have presented.
“We believe that removing the mask requirement will make it easier for students to learn, particularly our young readers and students learning English as a second language,” he said.
Still, educators, students, and parents may see masks in classrooms even after this month.
Baker and Riley both emphasized that individuals will still be allowed to wear face coverings in schools — a personal decision that education leaders must work to support, they said.
“We ask all school leaders and students to make sure they respect all individual choices around mask wearing,” Riley said. “Please make sure to create a supportive environment that respects everyone’s choice to do what is most appropriate and comfortable for them.”
The school mask mandate requires students over the age of 5 and staff members to wear masks indoors with few exceptions. Masks are allowed to be removed when eating, drinking, or during mask breaks, and the face coverings are not required to be worn outdoors. Students who have medical reasons or behavioral reasons for not being able to wear a mask are also exempt.
Masks are required for any sports-related activity when indoors.
Still, even as Massachusetts prepared to remove the requirement, the COVID-19 case rates among children and teens remained higher than older demographic groups, state data showed.
As of Jan 29., the most recently available dataset, the case rate collected over the prior two weeks was highest among residents ages 5 to 9, with a rate of 2,538.9 cases per 100,000 people. The second-highest rate was among 10- to 14-year-olds, recorded at a rate of 2,307.1 per 100,000, followed by the rate for children under 4 years old at 2,268 per 100,000 and the rate for 15- to 19-year-old residents at 2,127 per 100,000. (Although the case rate is higher among younger residents, there remain far more cases among older individuals in the commonwealth.)
The Baker administration has repeatedly touted that virus transmission within schools has remained low since classrooms reopened.
Last month, as Baker and other state education officials unveiled another school virus testing option, data collected through Jan. 9 showed that nearly 99 percent of over 500,000 tests conducted within schools this school year were negative. The data confirmed “without a doubt that in-school transmission is extremely rare — far more rare than transmission that is happening outside of school,” Baker said on Jan. 18.
In the statement released by DESE Wednesday, officials said vaccinations are “the best protection against COVID-19.”
“Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates of young people and is a national leader in overall vaccination,” the statement says. “In Massachusetts, 52 percent of all individuals who are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose, compared to 42 percent of the national population.”
Yet, children have contracted the virus at higher rates than adults in Massachusetts for months — a trend experts have said has likely been driven by vaccine hesitancy from parents and caretakers.
On Tuesday, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu called the city’s pediatric vaccination rate one “very big gap” among several in the city’s vaccination metrics. She teased a series of outreach events anticipated during this month’s winter vacation aimed at boosting those numbers. And while Wu set parameters for when she will roll back the city’s indoor vaccination policy for certain venues, she said Boston was “not yet there” on lifting its mask mandate. And when asked about the mandate in schools on Tuesday, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said only that the district would continue to look at DESE’s guidance.
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