Baker will not mandate masks in schools
Face coverings ‘strongly recommended’ for unvaccinated students
THE MASSACHUSETTS Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday issued new guidance “strongly recommending” that elementary school students wear masks this fall, but leaving the decision up to individual school districts. The guidance also recommends that vaccinated students not be required to wear masks.
The new guidance falls far short of the indoor mask mandate that some lawmakers and medical experts had been hoping for. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends universal masking in schools, as does the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think it’s an epic failure,” said Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat who has been a vocal proponent of a mask mandate in schools. “The governor and his administration today utterly failed children and families in the state.”
This year, unlike last year, state education officials are requiring all schools to open for full-day instruction five days a week. The state lifted all health and safety requirements that had been in effect last year addressing measures like social distancing and face coverings.
The guidance recommends that vaccinated individuals – like older students – not be required to wear masks.
Any individual who is high risk for severe disease from COVID-19 or has a household member at high risk is still encouraged to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. All students and staff will be required to wear masks on school buses, due to a federal order, and in school health offices.
The school guidance was released the same day the Department of Public Health updated its guidelines for face covering for vaccinated individuals. The new guidelines recommend mask wearing for vaccinated people “when indoors (and not in your own home) if you have a weakened immune system, or if you are at increased risk for severe disease because of your age or an underlying medical condition, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.”
The new guidelines come as the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus is spreading, with some data showing that even vaccinated people can get and spread the virus, although they are far less likely to get severely ill than unvaccinated individuals.
While Massachusetts has a high vaccination rate among the adult population, children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. As of earlier this week, only 58 percent of 12 to 15-year-old children had had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 64 percent of the 16 to 19-year-old population had at least one shot.
Earlier this week, a coalition of 200 medical and public health professionals in Massachusetts wrote two letters to Baker urging him to implement a mask mandate in schools. The letters were spearheaded by Dr. Regina LaRocque, an infectious disease physician and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Natalya Davis, a Quincy pediatrician.
“Young children lack protection from disease, and vaccination rates among adolescents are insufficient to prevent outbreaks in school communities,” one of the letters reads. “Transmission of the delta variant in Massachusetts schools will lead to significant educational disruption, with our medically fragile and socially vulnerable children at the greatest risk of harm.” The letter said universal masking “is low-cost and effective” and creates consistent expectations for children.
Davis said in an interview that the guidance puts a lot of pressure on schools to make their own policies, which subjects them to intense public pressure at the same time as they’re trying to figure out how to catch students up on their education. It will also cause confusion for students and a “social nightmare” if some students are vaccinated and others are not, and the school needs to figure out how to distinguish between the populations. “The best way to mitigate spread and keep these kids in school, especially while working on getting everyone vaccinated, is just to use the mask,” Davis said.
The education department guidance was quickly panned by the state’s teachers’ unions, which have regularly been at odds with the governor over his pandemic-related guidance.
The American Federation of Teachers – Massachusetts reiterated its call for universal masking in grades K-6, where students are too young to be vaccinated. It urged local school communities to implement mask mandates on their own. The Boston school superintendent has already said all students and staff in Boston Public Schools will need to wear masks this fall.
“If [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] continues to reject public health guidance and fails to act, local school committees need to step up and require universal mask wearing to keep us all safe and to maximize the likelihood of schools staying open this school year,” said AFT Massachusetts president Beth Kontos.
Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy called the guidance “reckless” and said the state education department “is essentially signaling that students, educators and families should not take seriously the reality of the alarming rise in the number of cases of COVID-19.”
In addition to the masking recommendations, the guidance from the education department cites CDC advice encouraging schools where students are unvaccinated to maintain physical distancing where possible, but not to exclude students from in-person learning just to maintain distancing. It encourages districts to maintain ventilation improvements, continue hand hygiene practices, and extend policies encouraging students and staff to stay home when sick.
State education officials are also encouraging schools to maintain COVID-19 testing in schools, both diagnostic and screening testing, and to run in-school vaccine clinics.The state also loosened its quarantine protocols. Previously, any student exposed to someone with COVID-19 would have to stay home for several days. Under the new guidance, an unvaccinated student exposed to the virus can attend school if they take daily rapid COVID tests for five days. Vaccinated students will not have to quarantine.
Rep. Bill Driscoll, the chair of the House Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, said at first glance the new regulations seem to address the dynamics of the most recent data. But, he said, more guidance is needed for the weeks and months ahead to keep potential COVID clusters small and prevent a surge of cases fueled by the Delta variant. “We urgently need vaccination numbers to increase in the eligible school age population, particularly in our most COVID-impacted communities,” Driscoll said in a statement. “I hope additional concrete plans are brought forward by DESE and DPH to increase vaccinations, which is our best mitigation against COVID.”