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.

Secretary of Education Jim Peyser said the new mask order was important to “ensuring that we have a smooth opening of school without any confusion or ambiguity about the health protocols everyone is expected to follow.” Even more important, he said, was the using the mandate to “reinforce the importance of vaccinations and to create incentives for school communities to get all their eligible students and staff vaccinated as soon as possible.” 

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. 

“On both practical and ethical grounds, I’m not sure that this approach works,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll know who’s vaccinated. I’m not sure that we really want students to be in a position of explaining why they’re not vaccinated or of tattling on each other for inappropriately going unmasked.”

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Board member Matt Hills said he’s guided by public health experts who have urged a mask order, and said he has no concern that Riley is seeking to “accumulate power” for its own sake. “I wouldn’t lose a second of sleep that Jeff is going to just to keep restrictions in place for the sake of it,” said Hills, a former chair of the Newton School Committee. “It’s straightforward to me,” he said of the decision to support a mask mandate, “not because it’s perfect but we don’t have the luxury of only voting when the situation is perfect.” 

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.”