Following State Guidance, Many Western Mass. Schools Drop Mask Requirements For Summer

Jun 24, 2021

More schools in western Massachusetts will allow students to attend summer classes and programs unmasked.

State education officials last weekend told districts they are now encouraging indoor mask-wearing for unvaccinated people, but no longer requiring it.

Guidance for next school year stands to be even looser, according to Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.

“For the fall: At this time, all health and safety guidance including masking and physical distancing will be lifted,” Riley wrote to school leaders on Saturday, noting that could change if additional health measures “become necessary” depending on the trajectory of the virus.

Riley said his recommendations align with the statewide guidance issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

In a meeting Tuesday of the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, a handful of parents urged the board not just to advise but to force local school committees to abandon requirements for masks.

Board Chair Katherine Craven asked Riley to address issues raised about school committees and boards of health instituting their own rules.

“So there are local control issues, and what we can do is kind of gather together a legal briefing for you from our legal staff about what that looks like,” Riley replied.

A state education department spokesperson did not respond to a request for more information about whether they state has authority to prevent schools from requiring masks.

In the Berkshires, Lee Superintendent Michael Richard said the school committee voted 5-1 Wednesday night to adopt the new guidance.

“I trust and defer to my colleagues in their respective communities to know they are making the decisions that are right for the communities that they serve,” Richard said Thursday. “For us here in Lee, no policy change is done without a lot of forethought. I credit the committee with venturing down this road.”

Public school officials from Chicopee, Pittsfield, Gateway Regional, Lenox, and Mount Greylock Regional have also dropped mask requirements.

“We remain committed to completely respecting those who wish to wear a mask, and like the state, encourage this for all unvaccinated individuals,” wrote Mount Greylock Superintendent Jake McCandless. “We also continue to urge those are able to be vaccinated to consider doing so, as this is good for them and for the community.”

Holyoke Public Schools is keeping the stricter mask rules in place. Spokesperson Erin Linville said that is because many students remain unvaccinated. But there’s another reason, too.

“These are the conditions with which many people signed up for summer school and some may decide not to attend if we loosened the restrictions,” Linville wrote in an email.

For the fall, Linville said, the district will solicit input from famiies and staff before making a decision on masks.

Sam Hudzik contributed.