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As UMass Boston and Chelsea schools institute mask mandate, other districts are slow to follow

UMass Boston and Chelsea Public Schools have re-instituted a mandatory mask policy for students and staff amid an ongoing surge of Covid-19 cases. But education watchers expect few other school districts to follow suit this time around.

"People are going to be very careful and very cautious because last year and the year before there was an awful lot of political tension around the issue of masking and people were relieved to take the masks off," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Chelsea school officials said the decision to require masks at this time adheres to a policy the school committee passed last April: that masks remain optional unless the CDC raises the Covid community risk level in Suffolk County. The CDC elevated the county to "high risk" last Thursday.

Case counts and hospitalizations are rising following the winter holidays. And a new contagious COVID strain, XBB.1.5, now accounts for nearly three-quarters of cases in New England.

Chelsea school committee member Roberto Jiménez-Rivera says, so far, there has been little pushback against the mandate — and that any opposition to the policy has come from people outside the school community.

"It is a lot of pushback from people who have been advocating against mask mandates across the state," he said. At the same time, there wasn't a huge wave of excitement over re-instituting masks within the school district. "We're not hearing a huge cry of celebration."

Over at UMass Boston, health officials also note there is a fair amount of pandemic fatigue on campus. But Robert Pomales, the executive director of University Health Services, says the decision to mandate masks still felt pretty easy.

"Clearly we were aware of the potential for resistance, but it was not a difficult decision to make," Pomales said. "Partly because we made the decision early on to be very closely connected to the CDC guidelines."

He anticipates that the mask policy at UMass Boston will be in place for several weeks.

Several K-12 public school districts in Massachusetts, including Boston, Newton, Lexington and Arlington, have recommended students and staff wear masks after returning to class from winter break. But they have stopped short of requiring them.

On Dec. 30th BPS officials sent a letter to the school community asking that students and staff mask up until January 13th, but emphasized that it was "not a mandate."

In a statement late Monday, a BPS spokesman said the district "every day continues to meet with the Boston Public Health Commission to examine the climate surrounding COVID, RSV, and the flu to assess our policies moving forward."

"We are committed to keeping our young people and staff safe and in the classroom, and we will be sure to inform our community of any updates to our guidance," he said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include comment from Boston Public Schools.

This article was originally published on January 09, 2023.

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Carrie Jung Twitter Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.

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