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Overdue, or premature? Child care providers have mixed reactions as state lifts mask mandate

A preschool teacher helps a little boy paint flowers on a colorful exterior mural using his handprint. (Getty Images)
A preschool teacher helps a little boy paint flowers on a colorful exterior mural using his handprint. (Getty Images)

There is a wide range of reactions as Massachusetts lifts the mask mandate for preschools, day cares and other child care settings Monday. Some parents and providers say the move is long overdue. Others worry it is dangerously premature.

Children under 5 are the only age group without access to COVID-19 vaccines, yet they are simultaneously the group at the lowest risk of severe illness and death if they do get COVID.

The state's policy change means each child care facility can design its own mask rules within the limits of local requirements. (Municipalities like Cambridge, for example, plan to keep indoor mask rules in place until mid-March.)

"Programs are all over the map," said Sharon MacDonald, director of member services at the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, or MADCA. "There really isn't a consensus out there."

Some programs — like Little Sprouts Early Education and Child Care, which has 23 locations in Massachusetts — are lifting mask requirements the first day it's allowed.

On Monday, Little Sprouts is allowing all children to go unmasked unless a parent requests otherwise. Staff can also remove masks if they show a negative COVID test at the beginning of each work week. A letter to parents heralded the step as "returning to a greater degree of normalcy."

"We saw far fewer COVID infections in our schools in February than we did in January, and that's reason to smile, and that is reason to show another person who you care about your smile. And we're happy to be able to do that,” said Amanda Goodwin, who works at Little Sprouts and helps communicate its COVID policies.

Other programs — such as Milldam Nursery School in Concord — are not making any changes immediately. Instead, the parent-cooperative preschool surveyed its community to understand family preferences.

"The vast majority of families are comfortable moving to mask-choice or masks-optional, given the other measures that will be in place, particularly testing,” said Kate Damon, the director as well as a teacher in the 3- and 4-year-old classroom. Milldam tests children for COVID twice a week, once with a PCR test and once with a rapid antigen test.

Damon said the earliest her preschool would move to a mask-optional policy is mid-March, in part because the state is lifting the K-12 and child care mask mandate on the same day children return from February break. Since many kids visit extended family or travel during the vacation week, that presents new possible COVID exposures, Damon said. Her preschool decided to wait and see if there was a spike in cases post-travel before changing its pandemic policies.

Some have urged child care centers and preschools to keep masks in place until vaccines are available to children under 5 years old. Walter Gilliam, the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, said he was "definitely concerned" to see states removing mask mandates for child care centers.

"Now is not the time to give up," Gilliam said. “We're getting close to the time when we actually will be able to vaccinate young children. It's just not right now. Why would we remove from them other protective factors that we have, like masking?"

Gilliam is part of a team that published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, finding that masking children ages 2 to 5 years old was linked to a 13% reduction in child care closures due to COVID outbreaks. Masking had a bigger impact than any other factor they considered, including social distancing and disinfection.

"Masking was the best thing that was at the disposal of these teachers ... in terms of how effective it was," Gilliam said.

Regardless of how individual child care centers and families feel about mask requirements, there is broad agreement that the lifting of the state's mask mandate is a critical juncture in a pandemic that has been full of twists and turns.

"It is a watershed moment," said Christopher Vuk, CEO of Rock and Roll Daycare, which has 10 locations in Massachusetts.

Vuk said day cares across the country have been operating below capacity since they reopened amid the pandemic. Rock and Roll Daycares are about three-quarters full, he said.

Vuk said he believes many families initially kept their kids home out of fear of the virus. Now, he thinks the primary deterrent is families don't want their children wearing masks for a significant portion of the day. But with masks no longer required under state rules, Vuk anticipates a boost to enrollment as more families return.

Related:

Gabrielle Emanuel Twitter Senior Health and Science Reporter
Gabrielle Emanuel is a senior health and science reporter for WBUR.

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