BOSTON (State House News Service) – Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday he has no plans to revisit his administration’s guidance for wearing masks indoors as the spread of COVID-19 accelerates around the country, reiterating his position that decisions about mandating masks in schools are best left with local officials.
Baker, who was at Peabody High School to announce a round of career skill-building grants, faced questions about his administration’s position on masks in light of the entirety of Massachusetts now experiencing “high” or “substantial” transmission of COVID-19.
The governor’s reluctance to impose a new mask mandate or issue guidelines consistent with those recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has drawn criticism from some Democrats on Beacon Hill and teachers’ unions as schools prepare to welcome students and staff back to the classroom in a couple of weeks.
“I’m not considering changing the mask guidance at this time,” Baker said.
The governor said his administration continues to pay close attention to case counts, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, but believes Massachusetts is in a different category than other states because of its higher vaccination rate.
“You can’t look at the commonwealth of Massachusetts and look at our vaccination rate, our hospitalization rate and compare it to the rest of the country,” Baker said.
Last week, all 14 counties in Massachusetts became territory where the CDC defines COVID-19 spread as high or substantial, which triggers a recommendation from the federal agency that all people wear masks in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status. Baker has advised masks indoors only for those at higher risk from COVID-19 or who live with an adult that is unvaccinated or at a higher risk for severe illness.
Still, Massachusetts currently trails just seven other states for fewest number of new daily cases per capita, according to state and federal data compiled by the New York Times. The state also ranks just behind Vermont and New Hampshire, which are tied for the top spot, among states for daily COVID-19 hospitalizations.
And at 65 percent, Massachusetts has the second highest vaccination rate in the country, behind only Vermont. The CDC reports that 85.6 percent of adults have had at least one dose.
“I hope and pray that many other states move as aggressively as the people in Massachusetts have moved to get a vaccine.” Baker said. “Vaccinations are the pathway out of this pandemic, period.”
The governor said as the rules become clearer around eligibility for booster shots his administration will work with the federal government to make sure those who are immunocompromised have access to an additional shot.
The administration also plans to resume publishing data on child COVID-19 hospitalizations after it stopped publishing the figures, Baker said, because the numbers got to small to be useful on a day-to-day basis.
Baker defended his approach to the reopening of schools next month, describing his administration’s “very strong recommendation” that younger students grades K-6 who are not yet eligible for a vaccine and older students and adults who are not vaccinated wear masks indoors.
He said “hundreds” of vaccination clinics will be held in coordination with schools between now and beginning of the new academic year to increase the vaccination rates among students 12 and older, but he said local school departments are best equipped to make decisions about mask mandates in their districts.
“Giving locals the opportunity to own the decisions they make is a big and important issue and if you look at what’s playing out in other states right now where state government has taken away the authority for locals to make their own decisions, that’s not the right way to play this game. It’s just not,” Baker said.
Some lawmakers believe Baker should go further and require masks be worn in all public school buildings by children and adults, consistent with CDC guidelines.
Sen. Becca Rausch is among the Democrats who have been critical of Baker’s response to the spread of the Delta variant. The Needham lawmaker is the sponsor of a bill that would require universal masking in public schools, and is collecting signatures for a petition on her website that calls on Baker to “stop playing politics with public health.”
Baker was in Peabody on Monday morning with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and several members of his Cabinet to announce the latest round of skills capital grants for educational institutions building programs to train high school students and adult for careers in advanced manufacturing, nursing and other fields.
The governor awarded close to $10 million in grants to 47 educational institutions to buy equipment and ramp up programs that train students, many of them still in high school, for careers in fields like advanced manufacturing.
Schools such as Peabody High School partner with local employers as part of the program giving students access to opportunities like internships or jobs after they graduate. The grants were funded from a pot of $75 million for the program authorized by the Legislature as part of a 2018 jobs bill.
“For us, this is a wonderful validation of a program that we weren’t quite sure would take off when we got started,” Baker said.
Since its creation in 2015, 387 grants totaling $102 million have been awarded through the Skills Capital Grant Program to 187 recipients.
Paul Panagopoulos, marketing director for RCN Boston, said his company is working on building a new fiber optics lab at Peabody High School to be ready for the start of the new school year and will be launching a paid internship program for selected students who will work side by side with RCN technicians to become “job-ready” when they graduate.
Panagopoulos said the high school program in Peabody funded with a Skills Capital grant is the first certified fiber optics program in the country, and he hopes more schools in Massachusetts can replicate it.
Peabody received $175,000 last year for its culinary arts and electronics and engineering programs, and won another $125,000 grant this round to purchase simulation equipment for medical assistant students.
Other recipients this year who attended Baker’s event in Peabody include Salem High School, Greater Lawrence Technical School, Massachusetts Bay Community College, Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School and Swampscott High School.