When Massachusetts education officials earlier this month announced the extension of masking requirements in K-12 schools, they also quietly tucked in a change affecting a small number of schools where local officials have opted to drop the mask mandate.
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley's mandate, first instituted last August, requires staff and students age 5 and up to be masked indoors, except in schools where local officials decide to relax that rule after demonstrating a COVID-19 vaccination rate of at least 80%.
Guidance the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sent to school districts on Jan. 10, the day the extension was announced, says that in those schools, "In alignment with statewide guidance, it is highly recommended that unvaccinated students and staff continue wearing masks."
Originally, the policy — described by Baker administration officials as a way to incentivize vaccination — allowed schools to stop requiring masks for vaccinated staff and students only. An Aug. 27, 2021 press release from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said, "Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks."
A previous version of the mask policy, dated Sept. 27, and an Oct. 26 update both say, "In alignment with statewide guidance, unvaccinated students and staff would be required to continue wearing masks." So does an attestation form that DESE posted online for local officials to prove their 80% vaccine rates.
The press release the department issued this month announcing the extension said schools above the 80% threshold will still have the ability to lift the mask mandate, but did not mention how unvaccinated individuals would be affected in those cases.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education confirmed the policy was updated with the Jan. 10 mandate extension. A department spokesperson did not respond to a question about why the change was made.
Mandates have been a source of tension, with some calling for the state to implement uniform requirements on masking as a public health measure amid the latest COVID-19 surge and others viewing them as overreach or wishing for a return to pre-COVID protocols after nearly two years of the pandemic.
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meetings this academic year have featured testimony from parents, students and health professionals with various stances on masking, and mask debates have played out before local school committees.
A bill the House passed last week includes $25 million for "the acquisition and distribution of high-quality personal protective masks for children and faculty in elementary and secondary public school districts," and a similar bill is expected to clear the Senate this week. As the highly transmissible omicron variant has sharpened focus on the quality of face-coverings, the White House has indicated plans to make millions of N95 masks available for free.
In Massachusetts, masks are mandatory in some settings like hospitals and public transit. A Department of Public Health advisory recommends, but does not require, that all residents wear masks in indoor public spaces. Some municipalities, including Boston, have their own mandates in place, with mixed compliance levels.
As case counts and soared this winter and hospital beds filled up with COVID patients, some legislative Democrats have been calling for the Baker administration to re-impose a statewide universal mask mandate. At a Jan. 11 oversight hearing, Sen. Jo Comerford asked Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders if she believes the Baker administration "must act immediately to institute a universal mask mandate like New York and California."
Sudders said the administration is "not considering a universal mask mandate at this time."
"I'd also point out, and I spend a lot of time looking at other state data as well as our own data, is that New York, which has a mask mandate, COVID cases are through the roof, and so I don't know, other than further frustrating people in the public, what a mask mandate would do, a universal mask mandate," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status or local transmission rate.
In announcing its extension of mask requirements this month, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education called masks an "important measure to keep students, teachers and staff in school safely."
As of Jan. 14, DESE had granted 31 schools with vaccination rates at or above 80% permission to lift the mask requirements. Not all schools have taken advantage of that option, and local policy approaches differ.
The middle and high schools in the Masconomet regional district — which serves Boxford, Topsfield and Middleton — are two of the schools where DESE has approved waivers. Masconomet Superintendent Michael Harvey said in a Jan. 19 update to the school committee that to allow students and school staff to go unmasked, he would also need a waiver from the Boxford Board of Public Health's emergency order requiring face coverings.
"Because of the current surge in COVID cases, and given the other associated challenges that I've reported this week, such as high rates of staff and student absences, and a new testing program to research and implement, I have not approached the Boxford Board of Public Health regarding this waiver, nor do not anticipate doing so in the near future," Harvey said.
Optional mask-wearing at Franklin High School only lasted for a few days before a local rule led students and staff to once again don face coverings while in classrooms. The district received a state waiver to drop the school masking mandate after reaching the 80% vaccination threshold. But a measure approved by the Franklin School Committee required face coverings if the local COVID-19 positivity rate exceeded 4%.
After three days of optional mask-wearing in mid-December, students and staff once again reached for their face coverings when the positivity rate increased. Franklin Superintendent Dr. Sara Ahern said school officials wanted to drop the mandate to mirror the experience students and staff found at other public venues.
"At the time, the cases were lower, the percent positivity was lower, and the students and staff, when they weren't in school, going to restaurants, going to concerts, had opportunities in other public places to mask or not," Ahern said.
COVID concerns recently led a group of students at Boston Public Schools to walk out of classes in an effort to draw attention to their calls for more health protocols and a temporary switch to remote learning.
During the week from Jan. 13 through Jan. 19, local education officials reported to the state 28,151 new student cases of COVID-19 and 4,758 new cases among staff members.
DESE's mask policy was originally put in place before vaccines were available to kids younger than age 12, which meant the school-aged population eligible for the shots was limited.
Gov. Charlie Baker, announcing new COVID-19 testing options for schools last week, said getting the vaccines is "the best thing you can do to protect yourself, our educators and our kids."
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meets next on Tuesday, when Riley is slated to give an update around COVID-19 response efforts in schools.
SHNS's Chris Van Buskirk contributed reporting.