Schools

Massachusetts doesn’t plan to require masks in schools this fall. Some lawmakers say that should change for the youngest students.

"Masks are the only remaining tool that we have for this particular age group."

Cody O'Loughlin / The New York Times, File

Massachusetts doesn’t plan on requiring any children to wear masks in schools and child care centers across the state this fall.

But for those under the age of 12 who haven’t had to opportunity to get vaccinated, some lawmakers say the state should.

In a letter Wednesday, a dozen Democratic state lawmakers urged Gov. Charlie Baker and top Massachusetts education officials to reinstate an indoor mask requirement for “students and staff alike” at child care center and elementary schools, at least until the COVID-19 vaccines are accessible for children under the age of 12.

“We’re six weeks out of school, we’ve seen case counts more than quadruple in the last four weeks, the Delta variant is on the rise, medical and public health experts are drastically concerned, and we need to make sure that we are using all of the tools in our toolbox to mitigate and combat COVID,” state Sen. Becca Rausch, who led the letter, told WCVB on Thursday.

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“This particular age group is not yet eligible for a vaccine so that tool is wholly unavailable for all of the kids in child care, and kindergarten through sixth grade,” Raush continued. “Masks are the only remaining tool that we have for this particular age group, and we also need the adults in those programs to model good behavior for the kids.”

The letter comes amid a national debate over whether children — who are far less likely to experience severe illness due to COVID-19 — should be required to wear masks in K-12 schools and child care setting, especially as the highly contagious Delta variant has driven steep increases in once-low case counts around the country.

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Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey also announced Thursday that the city would require children to wear masks this fall.

“As folks know, there are a number of children who still are not eligible for the vaccine,” Janey said during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

The Boston Teachers Union said Thursday that they “agree with Mayor Janey’s choice to play it as safe as possible.”

“Once vaccines are available and approved for young children, it will certainly make sense to reevaluate, but right now we agree with the Mayor that these steps are necessary to protect the health and safety of our students,” Jessica Tang, the BTU’s president, said in a statement.

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However, for the rest of the state, there are no plans for a mask requirement, leaving it up to individual districts to make their own decision as well.

In addition to requiring all Massachusetts schools to be in-person, five days a week, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidance in May saying that all health and safety requirements will be lifted this fall.

The guidance also said state officials may issue “recommendations” this summer about things like masks for elementary school students. For example, DESE encourages, but does not require, masks during summer school programs.

However, Baker said Thursday that no changes are in the works for the fall.

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“We don’t have plans to change our current policies with respect to school in the fall,” the Republican governor told reporters in Sandwich, stressing that the COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates in Massachusetts are lower than most other parts of the country due to the state’s high vaccination rates.

“We’re in a very different place than most other parts of the country,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines saying that vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks. That, of course, meant that all students under the age of 12 should still be masking. The American Academy of Pediatrics went even further, recommending this week that all school staff and students over the age of 2 should wear masks this fall, regardless of their vaccination status, as part of a “layered” approach intended to ensure that schools can reopen.

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While they are less vulnerable to the disease, children younger than the age of 12 remain ineligible to get any of the COVID-19 vaccines — and likely won’t be until later this fall or winter. Studies have found that children, even while asymptomatic, can still spread the disease to others, who may be more susceptible to the virus.

Still, those under the age of 18 have accounted for just 493 — or 0.1 percent — of the nearly 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States. And some local parents are pressuring the Baker administration against issuing mask requirements for students.

In a letter this week, a group called Bring Kids Back MA argued that “children are at low risk for serious disease” and that “the high vaccination rates in our state effectively reduce pandemic risk for the vulnerable.” They argued that calls for universal masking in schools were in pursuit of an “unattainable” goal of zeroing out all COVID-19 transmission.

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“Although new variants garner an overwhelming amount of media attention, there is no evidence that the Delta variant (for example) is causing any more severe disease, in children or adults, despite signs of it being more transmissible,” the letter Tuesday said. “The vaccines are doing what they were intended to do – reduce severe disease and impact to our most vulnerable; they were never intended to eliminate all COVID cases from occurring. Yet, the continued muddled messaging around ‘cases’ is placing children in a catch-22, with no apparent off-ramp.”

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