Mask mandate for Massachusetts schools to expire Feb. 28
The Baker administration will allow a statewide K-12 schools mask mandate to expire at the end of the month, a major shift that returns decisions about masks in Massachusetts classrooms to the local level as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the two-year mark.
Drawing concern from the head of the state's largest teachers union and criticism from some Democrats, Gov. Charlie Baker and Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley announced Wednesday that they will allow the existing requirement to expire on Feb. 28.
In its place, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will issue a non-binding recommendation for mask use in certain situations, such as when a student returns after testing positive for the coronavirus.
The Department of Early Education and Care will also update its guidance to reflect a similar change, Baker said.
School districts can still choose to impose their own local mandates, and Baker said the administration will "fully support" anyone who chooses to mask up once the mandate lifts. But when kids and teachers head back to the classroom after February vacation, they will no longer be subject to a state-issued mandate to cover their faces.
Baker said the improving COVID-19 outlook, with cases steadily declining in recent weeks after an omicron-fueled spike, and the availability of vaccines, tests and treatments have moved Massachusetts to a point where loosening the restriction is appropriate.
"Our kids have had to put up with a lot of disruption, a lot of time alone, and have suffered a real learning loss over the past two years," Baker said. "Given the extremely low risk for young people, the widespread availability and the proven effectiveness of vaccines, and the distribution of accurate test protocols and tests, it's time to give our kids a sense of normalcy."
Masks will remain required on school buses after the in-building mandate expires in accordance with federal rules, Riley said. School testing programs the state has supported will also remain in place to continue monitoring for possible COVID-19 cases.
As of Feb. 1, 82% of Massachusetts residents between the ages of 16 and 19, 83% of those between the ages of 12 and 15, and 51% of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Department of Public Health data.
Children younger than five remain ineligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
"Massachusetts actually ranks second in the nation for its highest share of kids fully vaccinated at this point in time," Baker said.
The announcement drew criticism from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which argued that the strong statewide youth vaccination numbers gloss over large disparities between wealthier, whiter districts and districts with more low-income families or students of color.
"Educators really want to return as much to normalcy as possible, but to do it safely, we can't throw caution to the wind at this very moment and drop the mask mandate on the day students return from February vacation," MTA President Merrie Najimy told the News Service. "We've had enough experience with school vacations to be able to anticipate a likely surge upon return. The CDC hasn't changed their guidance yet, so we think it's more prudent to wait until perhaps early or mid-March, assess the data, and then make a decision."
The move brought mixed reaction from parents. Amy Coates of Charlemont has six children in public school and is a big promoter of masking. But, Coates said, if a community's infection rate is low, "I would be in agreement with dropping the mask mandate."
A Greenfield parent of four, Fabienne Allen, said she supports the local model for responding to COVID.
"I mean, if you're looking at a school in Conway versus Boston, the cases are going to be different in each town or city," Allen said. "It doesn't make sense statewide for it to be the same across the board."
Isaac Mass of Greenfield, who has two teenagers in public school, questioned the effectiveness of the masks provided by the school — which he calls flimsy — and said that's a major reason he supports dropping the mandate.
"If N95 masks were readily available, that might change my view," he said.
The administration first imposed its school mask mandate in August and has extended it three times since.
Under the existing policy, schools with a combined student and staff vaccination rate of at least 80% can ask for state permission to lift the mask mandate — for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students — within their walls.
Riley said Tuesday that 68 schools applied for a waiver from the mandate. Forty-two received waivers, and decisions are still pending on another 21 schools.
"We're obviously not going to take any more waivers in, due to this announcement," Riley said.
COVID-19 has created headaches or outright upheaval in three different academic years, and Riley said the administration believes removing the mask mandate will "make it easier for students to learn," particularly for young readers and students for whom English is not a first language.
The Feb. 28 mandate expiration falls on the first day back from February vacation for many schools. Riley said the state will continue to make at-home tests available before the end of that time off to "cull out any positive cases" as it did following the winter break.
"We think that will be an effective measure going forward," he said.
Lawmakers sent Baker a $101 million spending bill that targets additional investments in masks and rapid tests for schools, among other areas. Baker said Monday he intends to sign the bill this week.
Baker and Riley said they opted to announce the impending policy change with two and a half weeks of advance notice to give local leaders time to make any additional decisions necessary.
They did not attach any specific public health metrics to the masking decision or outline data thresholds, such as an average positive test rate, that would trigger automatic reinstatement of the mask mandate.
"I don't want to get into hypotheticals on this," Baker said. "What I can tell you is we meet on a regular basis with a group of infectious disease experts and so does DESE. We're constantly talking to them about the latest updates, information and guidance."
Over the next few months, Baker said the state will also gain access to "a lot more therapeutics available that will be much easier to use."
"There's a lot of pieces, and you can't just focus on any one of them, which is one of the reasons why we spent a lot of time talking to people who are in the field and in the space," he said.
A handful of Democrats in the Legislature took aim at the announcement. Sen. Becca Rausch of Needham noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics "still recommend universal indoor school masking," while Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who is running for governor, said the shift "does not reflect the reality of our situation."
"While Massachusetts cases are, thankfully, declining from our unprecedented spike last month, our numbers are not low," Chang-Diaz said. "Community transmission rates are still ranking as 'high' in every county of the Commonwealth, our hospitalization rates are still as high as they were near the end of December, and the CDC still recommends universal masking for our students."
Najimy said the teachers union will continue to advocate before local officials to attach defined metrics to school masking plans and push for more spending on upgrading school ventilation systems, which could help limit the spread of the virus.
American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos said COVID-19 "remains a serious threat in dozens of Massachusetts school districts where vaccine rates for children ages 5 to 11 are dangerously low."
"We expect many of those districts to maintain their in-school mask mandates," Kontos said. "And we again call on the Baker administration to conduct comprehensive in-school vaccination programs, particularly in poorer, urban communities that have been devastated by the pandemic. It will be a challenge, but the Governor cannot walk away from our youngest students at this critical time."
The administration's decision comes as leaders in several other states roll back COVID-19 restrictions. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced the state's school mask mandate will lift on March 7. In Delaware, Gov. John Carney said a requirement to mask up in schools will expire on March 31.
Carrie Healy contributed to this report.