Baker should protect all students with mask mandate

The governor is abdicating his responsibility by punting issue to local communities

The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life…
Preamble to the Massachusetts Constitution

AS TWO MOTHERS who work in education policy, we have been steeped these past 18 months in the ongoing deliberations regarding public education during this pandemic. Where students were educated, under what conditions they were educated, on top of the ongoing questions of how and how well they were educated has been what we have lived for the past year and a half. As we prepare for our third school year impacted by COVID, much of the energy of this discussion has settled on masking.

Gov. Baker and state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley have abdicated their responsibilities for the public health of our schoolchildren and school staff. As a result, this decision has devolved to local school committees, who are on the receiving end of heated arguments of individual choice regarding this public health issue. School committees have been flooded with petitions and messages from abled, medically healthy families making claims to individual rights. However, school committees oversee government schools, and these public schools thrive only when the common good is available to all its students, not just the abled and medically robust. 

School committee members in Massachusetts take an oath of office to uphold the state and federal constitutions. The “safety” and “blessings of life” that the government is to furnish for the inhabitants of the state, as well as the constitutional obligation every public school district in Massachusetts has to educate all students, directly bear on this decision for the fall. 

Public health, as we have seen time and again during this pandemic, cannot be adequately protected by individual choices. It is all of us, together, that keep all of us, together, healthy. This has always been true: you, as an individual, cannot choose to put your pit toilet next to where others draw water; you, as an individual with typhoid, cannot choose to work as a cook in others’ households; you, as an individual coming from a place with the plague, cannot sail to a different country without observing quarantine. Societal protection of health is hundreds of years old in Massachusetts and millennia old in human history. 

The local districts across the state educate hundreds of children who are medically fragile, those with “pre-existing conditions” whose susceptibility to COVID has too often been dismissed as not worthy of consideration in public policy. We as a Commonwealth and as districts, however, are no less charged with the education of those children than we are with any other. 

Last year, frequently it was said “your mask protects me, and mine protects you,” but this sentiment has quickly fallen by the wayside in an eagerness to regain “normalcy.” Maskless or “choice” classrooms, however, regain normalcy only for some while creating a barrier for those whose lives are on the line. Normalcy only for some isn’t something that public education in Massachusetts can appropriately condone. 

Very frequently, families of those who are medically fragile have been forced to carry the main load of their children’s education for the past year and a half in order to keep them healthy. One of us bore that burden during the last school year, in fact, by home-educating a disabled, medically-fragile fifth grader. 

That this child spent her entire fifth grade year at home, excluded from the public school academically and socially, is an experience far too familiar for many disabled families in the Commonwealth. But educating their children is not these families’ burden to carry; it is the obligation of the state. 

Ensuring this inclusion is first a responsibility of the Commonwealth. Gov. Baker and Commissioner Riley must mandate safe conditions for all our children through a statewide mask mandate in Massachusetts schools. Until that happens, that responsibility will continue to rest fully — and unjustly — on local school committees. 

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Public schools are for all children; we have a community responsibility to vulnerable children to enable them to safely attend their schools. That means creating the conditions–masks for all, vaccines for all who can receive them–under which such children can safely attend. Without a mask requirement in all public schools, we are not fulfilling our obligation to include all children in public education.

Melissa Winchell is an associate professor of secondary education and educational leadership at Bridgewater State University. A former high school English and ESL teacher, she is co-founder of EQUITYedu LLC and Inclusion Matters, Inc. Follow her on Twitter @melissawinchell. Tracy O’Connell Novick is a member of the Worcester School Committee. A former high school English and history teacher, she now works in education policy and school finance. Follow her on Twitter @TracyNovick.