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School Mask Mandate Will Impact Some Western Mass. Districts More Than Others

Updated Aug. 24, 2021

The Massachusetts education commissioner has been granted authority from a state board to mandate masks in public schools. 

The 9-1 vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education came at the request of education commissioner Jeffrey Riley.

"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.

Riley said he could not rule out the possibility that masks "may be required intermittently throughout the year" based on the path the virus takes.

Until now, mask requirements have been left up to local districts.

The vote won't actually have much impact in communities like Springfield, Amherst and Holyoke, which have already decided to require them as the school year begins.

The situation will be different in East Longmeadow, where the school committee voted to recommend, but not require, masks for children in grades K through 6, and for unvaccinated students and staff in upper grades.

Kevin Manley, who is the parent of an East Longmeadow sophomore, signed a petition urging the school committee to require masks. He said he hopes Riley's push succeeds.

"Some kids can't be vaccinated," he said. "Some kids choose not be vaccinated. I think it's a great idea to put masks on to reduce our potential exposure."

The Agawam School Committee voted to recommend, but not require, masks in grades K to 6.

Under the state's proposal, districts will allow vaccinated students and staff at middle and high schools to go unmasked after October 1 if 80% of people in a building have been inoculated.

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."

This report includes information from State House News Service.

Before joining New England Public Media, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education, and politics. Working with correspondent Morley Safer, he reported from locations across the United States as well as from India, Costa Rica, Italy, and Iraq.
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