Spilka joins calls for school mask mandate

Senate president urges Baker administration to strengthen rules for the fall

AS BATTLE LINES are drawn among Massachusetts leaders, Senate President Karen Spilka added her voice to those calling for school children to be masked this fall. 

“No one wants to go back to the dark early days of this public health crisis, and so we must do everything possible to keep people safe and our economy stable,” Spilka said in a statement on Friday. “Wearing a mask around vulnerable populations … is a small and simple action we can take to do this.” 

Spilka’s statement comes a week after the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued new guidance “strongly recommending” masking for all students in grades K-6 and for unvaccinated students in grades 7 and up as well as staff and visitors who have not been inoculated.

Despite mounting pressure from teachers unions, some health experts, and federal guidelines, Gov. Charlie Baker has remained steadfast in his decision not to mandate masks in classrooms. He said he wants to leave the decision to local leaders and said he doesn’t believe national standards can be applied to Massachusetts, where vaccination rates far outpace the rest of the country. 

In Massachusetts, 70 percent of the population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, far ahead of the 58 percent national average. However, only 61 percent of those aged 12 to 15 have received a shot and younger children remain ineligible for the vaccine.

Vaccination rates also vary significantly between regions. Dukes, Barnstable, Middlesex, and Norfolk counties all have vaccination rates above the state average, but in Bristol and Hampden counties rates hover below 60 percent. Racial disparities remain as well, with lower vaccination rates among Hispanic and Black residents than their white and Asian counterparts. 

Baker’s stance is at odds with federal guidance and medical organizations. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend universal masking in schools. In late July, a coalition of 200 medical and public health experts penned two letters to the governor, urging him to implement a mask mandate and warning that a policy short of that could lead to enforcement challenges, learning disruption, and bullying. 

Fueling the call for a mask mandate in schools is the growing spread of the Delta variant, which now accounts for the majority of COVID-19 cases in New England and across the country. 

The variant is more severe and more transmissible than the original strain of coronavirus, and—as a recent Provincetown outbreak proved—puts even vaccinated individuals at risk, though they remain far less likely to become infected or seriously ill if they do develop a “breakthrough”case. Over half the state now meets the CDC’s standards for “high” or “substantial” risk of transmission of the virus, designations under which the agency says all people are encouraged to mask up indoors in public. 

Meet the Author

Lily Robinson

Summer intern, CommonWealth
Spilka wrote that parents, students, and school staff want direction from the state to guide a safe return to in-person learning this fall. She said that she and others hoped for a return to more normal classrooms this year, but that recent spikes in infections across the state preclude that possibility for now.

“That’s why I am calling on the Baker Administration to require masks in school this fall,” she said. “Our children deserve to learn, grow and thrive in a safe and healthy environment, free from the disruption, anxiety and fear of a COVID-19 outbreak in their school.”