State education board OKs school mask mandate
Riley says he hopes order will be 'short-term measure'
THE STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION granted Education Commissioner Jeff Riley’s request for authority to impose a mask mandate for all students and staff in K-12 schools this fall, something Riley said he intends to order through at least the beginning of October.
“I want to be clear that we are hopeful this will be a short-term measure,” Riley said at Tuesday morning’s meeting where the board granted the mask-ordering authority. Riley showed a chart tracking a steep rise in the state’s 7-day average of confirmed COVID cases from 223 cases on July 15 to 1,237 as of August 18.
The move marked an abrupt reversal on the issue by the Baker administration. As recently as a week ago, Gov. Charlie Baker insisted that whether to impose mask requirements in schools this fall was a decision best left to local communities. But on Friday, the administration pivoted and said it would ask the education board to authorize Riley to impose a statewide mask order on Massachusetts schools.
Riley said the order would apply to all students 5 and older and staff at K-12 schools at least until October 1. After that date, he said, vaccinated staff and students may go unmasked at schools where at least 80 percent of the school community has been vaccinated. There will be exemptions for those who may not be able to wear marks for medical or behavioral conditions.
Education board member Paymon Rouhanifard, the lone dissenting vote on the order, was sharply critical of the move. He raised concern about end dates for the order, saying “there’s no clear off ramp,” pointing to the fact children under 12 are not currently eligible to be vaccinated.
Rouhanifard said overall COVID rates remain very low in the state, even if there has been a sharp rise in recent weeks from a low baseline level. Moreover, he said, the focus on cases is a significant shift from the early days of the pandemic and talk about “flattening the curve.”
“The curve, you may recall, was about hospitalization rate and count, and all of a sudden we’re now focused on case count, and I do believe the goal posts have shifted and there hasn’t been an honest conversation about that,” said Rouhanifard, a former superintendent of schools in Camden, New Jersey. “I’m honestly genuinely surprised that this is being endorsed by our governor as an incentive for vaccination because I consider our governor and his administration to be really smart about technocratic policy solutions.”
Rouhanifard said the mask order sends the wrong message about the pandemic in a state with high vaccination rates and low COVID rates. “I, frankly, think we have an opportunity, and you could argue a responsibility, to signal optimism — that we are opening the door toward normalcy,” he said.
Board member Marty West, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, said he was “reluctantly convinced” that conditions warrant approving a mask order.
“I want to reject the notion that the decision we’re confronting is a simple matter of following the science,” said West. “In my judgment, evidence on the efficacy of masking in school settings for preventing the spread of COVID is less clear cut than is often suggested. Nor does science tell us how to value whatever benefits it produces against the cost to students of not being able to see their teachers’ faces for most of the school day.”
West also urged Riley to engage in ongoing conversation with the board and other stakeholders, expressing particular concern about the idea of allowing vaccinated students to go without masks after October 1 in schools with 80 percent overall vaccination rates.
Underscoring the uncertainties that have characterized the pandemic and that continue to loom over efforts to predict where it is heading, Riley said he can’t guarantee that a mask order will be a short-term approach. It’s not possible, he said, to “completely rule out that masks may be intermittently required through the year based on the trajectory of the virus and any emergency new variants.”