In an about-face from a few weeks ago, federal public health officials on Tuesday recommended that everyone in K-12 schools wear masks in the coming year, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, prompting mixed reactions of relief and alarm among families and educators in Massachusetts.
Citing new information about the contagiousness of the Delta variant in vaccinated people, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said universal masks would help keep schools safe and open, allowing children to learn in-person after more than a year of disruptions due to the pandemic. The CDC also recommended that vaccinated people in areas with high transmission rates wear masks in indoor public spaces. Both announcements reversed earlier guidance.
“This is not a decision we at CDC have made lightly,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said at a news briefing. “This weighs heavily on me.”
The Delta variant now makes up most infections in the United States, and many states are seeing rising COVID rates, though more than 97 percent of hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated, according to the CDC. CDC officials were concerned about new scientific evidence that shows even vaccinated people can become infected and carry the virus, leading to more spread, Walensky said. More transmission risks more mutations that could lead to a new variant that could evade vaccines, she said.
The CDC’s new recommendation aligns with one by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has called for everyone older than age 2 to wear masks in school this fall.
“Transmission of the Delta variant in Massachusetts schools will lead to significant educational disruption, with our medically fragile and socially vulnerable children at the greatest risk of harm,” dozens of Massachusetts doctors wrote on July 19, urging the state to mandate masks in schools.
As the variant spreads, many children remain unprotected as the vaccines are not authorized for those under 12. Across Massachusetts, about 57 percent of teens 12 to 15 and 64 percent of people 16 to 19 have received at least one vaccine dose, state data show. There are wide variations. In some counties, such as Middlesex, 70 percent of teenagers have received at least one shot, while in other places such as Plymouth County, fewer than half of those ages 12 to 15 have received a vaccine.
The new guidelines came less than a week after Governor Charlie Baker said he had no plans to reinstate statewide restrictions, including in schools. Terry MacCormack, a Baker spokesperson, said Tuesday the administration is reviewing the CDC’s new guidelines.
For some parents, school districts’ policies will help determine whether they send their kids to in-person school this fall. Worcester parent organizer Nelly Medina is considering keeping home her rising kindergartener if the district doesn’t “protect our children at school.”
“Mandating masks is the way to go, without question,” said Medina, who organizes parents for the Massachusetts Jobs with Justice parent program. “If we must send them off to buildings with poor air quality and overcrowded classrooms ... then mandate masks.”
While Boston already mandated masks for students and staff this fall, other districts remain undecided. School leaders in Chelsea and Newton said they’re monitoring infection and vaccination rates and awaiting state guidance.
Worcester also is waiting guidance, but Superintendent Maureen Binienda said she generally agrees with the CDC recommendation since vaccination rates remain low for her students.
Earlier this summer, state education officials said they would drop all COVID-related protocols, including masks, this fall. On Tuesday, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it was reviewing the CDC’s announcement.
Miles Grant, a father of an incoming prekindergartner and second-grader in Mattapoisett, said he trusted health experts’ opinions. He said his kids didn’t mind wearing masks, especially since their teachers and classmates wore them, and they learned the masks kept everyone safe.
“This summer, we’d go places without a mask on, and that seemed odd to them; they were now used to wearing masks,” Grant said. “It won’t be a big deal for them at all. We underestimate how adaptable kids are.”
But other parents and educators feel differently.
In Needham, where state data show at least 95 percent of teenagers have received at least one vaccine dose, Adam Cole, a high school math teacher and father of two young boys, said masks are unnecessary and can cause harm. Last year with masks on and socially distanced, Cole said, his high school students were less likely to participate, hear each other, or build relationships.
With so many vaccinated at Needham High, “Why should we be wearing masks?” Cole said. “We’re impacting their ability to learn from each other and from the teacher, without a benefit to their health.”
And for his sons, Cole worries masking could affect their ability to learn skills necessary for speaking and reading.
Melissa Bello, a member of Bring Kids Back MA, a parent advocacy group that favors optional mask-wearing in schools, said she was disappointed by the new guidelines.
“The goalposts continue to change and it’s super frustrating for parents,” said Bello, a Needham mother of a second- and fifth-grader. “You have to look at the risk kids take outside of COVID. Kids die of cancer, drowning, and the flu. We can’t keep kids in a bubble. ... When is this going to be over for them? Society has to move forward.”
Teachers unions lauded the CDC’s announcement. But Beth Kontos, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts, said school districts should have the ability to set masking policies for students 12 and older, as some Massachusetts communities may have high teen vaccination rates.
“As a teacher, I don’t want to have to check a list: ‘Oh, Joey, put your mask on, you’re not vaccinated yet,’” Kontos said. “I want people outside the classroom to make the policy and then we all just wear masks or not, depending on the community.”
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, welcomed the new guidelines, saying mask-wearing combined with ventilation upgrades, increased vaccination, routine COVID-19 testing, and social distancing are proven ways to reduce transmission.
“Now is not the time to let our guard down, especially with the Delta variant, the most contagious we have seen,” said Najimy.
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