Massachusetts will lift school mask mandate Feb. 28
Local districts can impose their own requirements
MASSACHUSETTS WILL LIFT its mask mandate for schools on February 28, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday.
“Given the extremely low risk to young people, the widespread availability and proven effectiveness of vaccines and the distribution of accurate test protocols and tests, it’s time to give kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools,” Baker said at a State House press conference.
Under the new rules released by the Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, students and teachers will no longer be required by the state to wear masks in schools. Local school districts will be allowed to impose their own mask mandates, should they choose to do so. State officials urged schools to create a “supportive environment” that backs the decisions of individual students to wear or not wear a mask.
Daycares and early childcare providers will also be allowed to lift masking requirements.
“Those advances and the hard of work parents, educators, and kids in Massachusetts make it possible to give our kids what they have earned – the familiar, welcoming, nurturing classroom that they’re used to,” Baker said.
State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the last two years have caused a strain on students’ mental health, emotional development, and academic success. He said masks have been especially difficult for young readers and students learning English. “We’re relieved to be in a place where we can provide young people with additional relief from COVID-19 restrictions so they can move toward normalcy in the classrooms,” Riley said.
Baker required all schools to open for in-person learning this year and, since the year started, students have been required to wear masks indoors, except while eating or drinking. Local school officials could obtain a waiver for school buildings where more than 80 percent of students and staff were vaccinated. So far, 68 schools submitted waiver requests, and 42 were granted. Wednesday’s announcement effectively makes moot the waiver process, since all schools will be allowed to lift their mandates regardless of vaccination rates.
In announcing their decision, Baker and Riley said they were guided by medical experts and influenced by the fact that Massachusetts has high rates of vaccinations and boosters, including among children.
So far, 5.2 million people in Massachusetts are fully vaccinated, around 87 percent of the population, and 2.7 million booster doses have been administered. Around half – 51 percent – of children ages five to 11 are vaccinated, as are at least 82 percent of those ages 12 to 19.
Several other states, including Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, have recently announced that they are rescinding their mask mandates.
Baker said school testing programs will remain in place, including regular surveillance testing and the distribution of at-home rapid tests.
Students will still be required to wear masks in certain circumstances. For example, a student recovering from COVID who is allowed to return to school after five days must wear a mask for another five days. Federal guidelines still require masks to be worn on school buses.
Given the uncertainty about the virus’s trajectory, Baker and Riley did not rule out reimposing a mask mandate in the future. Asked what would trigger its reimposition, Riley said he would not speak in hypotheticals, but “we’ll act as necessary depending on what happens in the future.”
Wednesday afternoon, Thomas Carroll, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, announced that in light of Baker’s decision, the archdiocese would also eliminate all required school masking in its Catholic schools, effective February 28. Students and families will be allowed to make their own decisions whether to continue wearing masks. The Archdiocese will consider requests from individual schools to reimpose a mask mandate only “where there is a parent consensus and compelling data.”
The lifting of the statewide mandate will result in a patchwork of policies across the state. Tracy Novick, a Worcester School Committee member, said she anticipates that Worcester will keep its mask mandate in place for now. “They work, for one thing,” Novick said of masks. And she added, “We don’t have the rate of vaccinations we need to make kids safe.”
Novick said vaccination rates among children in urban areas and Gateway Cities are lower than in other parts of the state. She worries that the long-term effects of COVID-19 are still unknown. And she does not understand what data Baker is basing his decision to lift the mandate on, other than the fact that it is a growing trend. “People getting tired wearing fabric in front of their noses and mouths is not a good way to make public health policy,” Novick said.
In Lexington, School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan said there will definitely be a mask mandate in place in schools through March 15, because the town’s Board of Health has imposed one. Beyond that, the school committee has not yet made a decision.
Lenihan said the most recent discussion was that Lexington would consider lifting its mask mandate if 90 percent of people in a school building were vaccinated. Lexington High School is at 94 percent, the elementary schools range from 67 percent to 75 percent, and the middle schools are slightly above the elementary schools. “We’ll have to have some conversations about where we go from here,” Lenihan said.
Connie Barr, chair of the Needham School Committee, said even before Baker’s announcement, Needham was developing its plans for going mask optional, and had obtained waivers from the state. Barr said she does not anticipate a change in the School Committee’s plans, based on the governor’s announcement. The district has not yet announced when it will lift its mask requirement, and the committee is still working on figuring out when masks will be required (for example, in health offices), and how to phase the new policies in across different schools. “We’re well on the way to dealing with the factors, the communication we need to plan for mask optional,” Barr said.
Some union officials are raising concerns about Baker’s decision. Beth Kontos, president of AFT Massachusetts, part of the American Federal of Teachers, said she worries that many cities – including Springfield, Fall River, New Bedford, and Lawrence – have vaccination rates below 20 percent among children ages five to 11. She said the state needs a more comprehensive plan for boosting vaccination rates among these kids before teachers will feel comfortable being in classrooms unmasked.
Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy worried that lifting the mask mandate right as students are returning from February vacation, when past trends show there is likely to be an uptick in cases, is “throwing all caution to the wind.” She would like to see Baker wait until March and look at circumstances at that point before lifting the mandate.Like Kontos, Najimy said she worries about low-income students and students of color, who live in communities with lower vaccination rates. Najimy said many teachers will likely keep wearing masks. “I think there’s no doubt educators are growing tired of the masks and really look forward to the day when we can remove them. But there’s still a deep level of concern for their own health and safety and that of their students and families,” she said.
This is a breaking news story that is being updated.