COVID

BPS brings back mask policy as COVID levels in Boston wastewater return to winter highs

"This is our ask and expectation of students and staff, not a mandate."

COVID test kits and masks on the table for teachers to pick up at the Donald McKay K-8 school in East Boston
COVID test kits and masks on the table for teachers to pick up at the Donald McKay K-8 school in East Boston on Jan. 3, 2022. David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Students and staff returning to Boston Public Schools from the holiday break next week are asked to wear masks again, at least temporarily, as the wintertime COVID surge returns to the Boston area and hospitals operate under what the city’s chief health officer called Friday a “significant strain” from the transmission of flu and other viral illnesses.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 13 — or for a total of eight school days — all BPS schools will adopt “temporary masking,” the district announced Friday.

Superintendent Mary Skipper wrote to families about the policy, pointing not only to new COVID variants going around, but also the flu and other respiratory illnesses on the rise.

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“We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone,” Skipper wrote. “While we are all eager to return to a sense of normalcy, we need to take necessary precautions to ensure that the new year starts in a strong and productive way for our schools.”

The move, however, should not be confused as a mask mandate, officials said.

“This is our ask and expectation of students and staff, not a mandate—which will be in effect during the school day on school premises and school buses,” the district’s website says. “BPS will provide disposable face masks to students or staff who need them. No one will be disciplined or sent home if they refuse to wear a mask. Masks will be available for student athletes at practices and games, but not expected.”

BPS will also continue providing students and staff with antigen test kits bi-weekly, with each kit containing two kits to allow for testing during and after the holiday break, officials said. The kits are available in all BPS schools and administrative offices.

“We ask that all students take an iHealth Antigen Test on Tuesday evening, January 3rd, or Wednesday morning, January 4th, before the start of the school day and that staff take one the day before returning back to work on January 3rd,” the district says.

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Skipper said the mask policy decision was made in consultation with the Boston Public Health Commission, school nurses, and teachers “to preempt significant staffing shortages, student absences, and the loss of critical learning time.”

Skipper noted during this same time period last school year, the district saw its largest-ever COVID surge. BPS experienced massive staffing shortages that threatened the district’s ability to even keep classrooms open.

This year, COVID has been less disruptive, but flu and other illnesses have already fueled “significant staff and student absences,” Skipper wrote.

The district remains concerned “especially since 60 percent of all flu cases in Boston have been noted among 17-year-old people and younger and these illnesses disparately impact Black and Brown families in our city,” the superintendent wrote.

“These infections can cause severe illness and hospitalization and throughout Boston, there has been a significant increase in pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID-19, flu, and RSV,” Skipper wrote. “Our goal with temporary masking is to mitigate and prevent an even bigger surge that would result in overwhelming student and staff absences this January.”

COVID, fueled by a new variant, is again on a sharp rise in Greater Boston.

Data from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority this week shows COVID RNA levels in wastewater in the city, as well as surrounding suburbs, has returned to levels not previously seen since January 2022.

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According to the Boston Public Health Commission, COVID wastewater concentration rose 61 percent over the past week and by as much as 78 percent in the past two weeks, as of Friday.

In Boston alone, the city averaged 15.7 new COVID cases a day per 100,000 people as of Dec. 24, notably higher than the approximately 7 cases per 100,000 people recorded in mid-November, the most recent data from the City of Boston shows.

COVID-related hospital admissions in Boston, meanwhile, hit 241 cases on Dec. 23, up from over 100 around mid-November as well.

As of Friday, hospitalized cases rose by 23 percent over the previous week and by 44 percent over the past two weeks in the city, the BPHC says. The total number of patients hospitalized and the new hospital admissions are now at their highest levels since early February 2021.

“We are experiencing a significant increase in viral wastewater concentration and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 along with a continued high number of influenza cases and hospitalizations. We expect this trend to continue through January,” Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, commissioner of public health and executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said in a statement Friday. “Our hospitals are already under significant strain. Masking indoors and getting vaccinated are strongly recommended and will protect you from severe illness and support our health care system.”

The new variant at the core of the surge, XBB, is now the dominant form of COVID in the Northeast and is spreading fast.

The variant made up roughly 35 percent of cases in the week ahead of Dec. 17, according to CDC data. Last week, XBB was the source of over half of the cases reported.

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Experts believe XBB is more transmissible than prior variants, although it does not appear to cause more severe illness or death.

But doctors are also still learning about the impacts of its sub-variants, and therefore continue to urge the public to remain up to date on vaccinations and booster shots.

According to the BPHC, officials are also concerned about Boston’s flu rate, with the city having notched 4,296 recorded cases since Oct. 1, with 739 of those cases between Dec. 17 and Dec. 23 alone.

“The 2022 flu season has been particularly concerning so far,” the BPHC said in a press release Friday. “This year’s peak flu levels came much earlier than normal and were significantly higher than they were in 2021. Estimates from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health indicate that only 38 percent of Bay State residents have gotten their flu shot this year.”

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