Schools

Massachusetts extends school mask mandate until at least Nov. 1

Middle and high schools with at least 80 percent of their students and staff vaccinated will be able to apply for an exemption from the mandate after Oct. 15.

Fourth-grader Carolina Da Silva adjusts her mask as she arrives for the first day of school at the Hill School in Revere last month. Craig Walker / The Boston Globe

Massachusetts is extending its statewide school mask mandate for at least another month, officials announced Monday, just days before it was slated to expire.

Jeff Riley, the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner, notified school districts Monday that he will extend the mask requirement for all public K-12 students, educators, and staff through at least November 1.

However, some schools with high vaccination rates can get an earlier exemption from the mandate, which would have otherwise expired this Friday.

Officials announced that middle and high schools that have at least 80 percent of their students and staff vaccinated will have the option of lifting the mandate after Oct. 15, allowing vaccinated individuals to go unmasked (since children under the age of 12 likely won’t be eligible for the vaccine until winter, all elementary schools remain subject to the mandate through at least Nov. 1).

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Schools that have reached the 80 percent threshold can submit an attestation form to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. After a verification process, vaccinated students and staff in those schools will no longer be required to wear masks. DESE officials say they will respond to submissions within two business days.

Under the previous plan, schools that met the 80 percent threshold would have been able to apply for an exemption after Oct. 1. Despite the two-week delay, officials noted that those that have already met that threshold can still submit the attestation form before Oct. 15 for consideration.

State officials also noted that schools that have reached the threshold are not required to immediately allow vaccinated individuals to go un-masked (either way, unvaccinated individuals age 5 and up will still have to wear a mask). Education Secretary James Peyser framed the policy as allowing “communities to make the decision at the local level.”

“Local school districts will have the option to remove masks for middle and high schools that reach this high vaccination rate among students and staff,” Peyser said. “We know some communities will want to submit verification quickly, and other communities might choose to continue their mask policies for now.”

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According to a DESE policy released Monday, calculation of the 80 percent threshold should include all enrolled students in the school building, plus “any staff member regularly providing in-school services,” including teachers, tutors, food service workers, clerks, coaches, and after-school staff. However, district central office staff not based in the building and other individuals who make brief or infrequent school visits, such as delivery workers, should not be included, according to the policy.

DESE officials also said that individuals’ vaccination status should be kept private by schools, which should determine a confidential method to collect proof of vaccination for all eligible staff and students, such as a COVID-19 vaccination card, a copy of the card, a self-attestation form signed by a parent or guardian, or a printout from the Massachusetts Immunization Information System.

In a statement, Riley alluded to the still-high rates of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Massachusetts. While recent reports suggest the delta variant-fueled increase may be tapering off, infections — the bulk of which are occurring in younger, unvaccinated individuals — and hospitalizations are still magnitudes higher than their summer lows.

Riley said the “best interest of students and staff as they return safely to full-time, in-person instruction this fall is at the forefront of my decision.”

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“Wearing masks is an important additional measure to keep students in school safely at this time.” Riley said Monday. “As health conditions evolve, we will continue to work with medical experts to find masking offramps for our youngest students who are not yet eligible for vaccines.”

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