Schools

Boston plans to require masks — though not distancing — for all students and staff this fall

While not finalized, Boston Public Schools leaders say that universal masking in buildings and buses is the plan.

Kids line up for their next activity after lunch during a summer school program in Boston. Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe

Boston Public Schools plans to require all students and staff, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status, to wear face coverings indoors this fall.

In a letter to the school community Friday afternoon, BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said that the district “expects that all students and staff will be required to wear masks while inside school buildings and during yellow bus transportation when they return to school in September.”

The news, which Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced Thursday, is a departure from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration’s plans to drop all COVID-19 restrictions for public schools in Massachusetts this fall. It also contradicts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks.

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However, the plans align with recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics that all school staff and students over the age of 2 wear masks this fall, regardless of their vaccination status, as part of a “layered” approach intended to ensure that schools can reopen.

Cassellius noted that children under 12 — though less likely to face hospitalization or death due to the virus — remain ineligible for any of the three COVID-19 vaccines. Additionally, Boston students who are eligible have lower vaccination rates than the citywide rate of 59%.

“We know that our students age 11 and under cannot yet be vaccinated and for
ages 12 to 15, only 18% in the city of Boston are vaccinated right now,” Cassellius wrote. “For ages 16 to 24, only 52% are vaccinated. Vaccines are the best way to protect ourselves from COVID-19, and masking is also an important prevention tool we must use.”

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(State data shows that 36% of Boston residents between the ages of 12 and 15 are fully vaccinated.)

While mask requirements have become a political flashpoint in the national debate around returning to school full time this fall as the more contagious COVID-19 Delta variant fuels steep increases in infection rates, Cassellius did say that BPS will drop physical distancing requirements, which proved to be a larger challenge for school reopenings over the past year.

“BPS does not plan to mandate physical distancing when we return to school this fall,” she wrote, noting that CDC guidelines say that such spacing requirements should not come at the expense of fully reopening schools when other strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like masks, can be used.

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The letter provides additional clarity, after Janey appeared to walk back her comments Friday after saying that masks would be required for students this fall, telling reporters that they would “assess the situation” closer to the school year.

Cassellius noted Friday that BPS has not finalized its plans, as they await further guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Jeff Riley, the state’s education commissioner, said Monday that DESE will release guidance in the coming weeks, according to the Worcester Telegram.

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