BOSTON (SHNS/WWLP) – By a 9-1 vote on Tuesday, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to give Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to mandate masks in K-12 schools for the imminent start of the third academic year influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riley has said the mandate he plans to impose will require all students and staff to wear masks indoors through Oct. 1. After that date, under his plan, middle and high schools where at least 80 percent of staff and students are vaccinated would be able to lift the mask mandate, but only for vaccinated individuals.
“I want to be clear that we are hopeful that this will be a short-term measure, and we continue to work with the health and medical community on off-ramps for masking,” Riley said ahead of the vote. He said he could not rule out the possibility that masks “may be required intermittently throughout the year” based on the path the virus takes.
The board’s vote — a shift from the Baker administration’s previous approach of recommending masks for unvaccinated individuals in schools but allowing individual districts to adopt their own policies — comes after dozens of school committees, boards of health, and other local officials across the state had already decided to require masks in their schools.
Local parents told 22News that they don’t mind the mandate, anything to keep their students physically in the classroom.
“As long as kids are in class,” said Abimael Alicea of Springfield. “I feel like they learn more. the thing with the mask it happens but we’ve been doing it for almost a year we should be able to keep pushing forward.”
Education Secretary James Peyser said the policy would both permit a smooth reopening of school “without any confusion or ambiguity about the health protocols that everyone is expected to follow,” and reinforce the importance of vaccination.
Board member Paymon Rouhanifard, who voted no, said it was “just, frankly, really bad public policy” to tie the proposal to vaccination rates, and said he thinks linking it to community spread would have been a “more reasonable” alternative. “I’m old enough to remember how this all started,” he said. “When this all started, it was about flattening the curve, and 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 post has shifted and there hasn’t been an honest discussion about that.”
“As students and staff prepare to return to school full-time, in-person, our priority is on a smooth reopening. With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall,”Jeffrey C. Riley | Education Commissioner
According to the board’s statement, after the October 1st deadline, those who are unvaccinated would still be required to wear a mask regardless of CDC data. The policy would also allow middle and high schools to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals if the school meets a vaccination rate of at least 80%.
“While Massachusetts leads the nation in vaccination rates, we are seeing a recent rise in COVID-19 cases because we still need more people to get vaccinated. This step will increase vaccinations among our students and school staff and ensure that we have a safe school reopening. . . “Vaccinations are the best way to keep everyone in the Commonwealth safe, and we will continue to work with school districts to offer vaccination clinics at schools across the Commonwealth.”Gov. Charlie Baker
The mandate would include exceptions for students who cannot wear a mask due to medical conditions or behavioral needs.