Unvaccinated students, educators, and staff members in Massachusetts schools should wear masks indoors this fall, according to new state guidance released Friday, despite federal recommendations earlier this week that calls for everyone in school buildings, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks.
The guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education strongly recommends that all students in kindergarten through sixth grade — the vast majority of whom are not yet eligible for vaccines — to wear masks indoors, unless they cannot due to medical or behavioral needs. In addition, all unvaccinated students and staff members in all grades also are strongly recommended to wear masks indoors.
Vaccinated students can remain unmasked if they choose, according to the guidance. Masks also are not being recommended outdoors and can be removed while eating.
“Any child or family who prefers to mask at school should be supported in this choice,” the state K-12 education agency wrote in its guidance.
All students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear masks at all times on school buses, due to a federal public health order, and in school health offices.
At a press conference Friday, Governor Charlie Baker said cities and towns can make adjustment to “do what’s right for their specific school districts.” But one thing is clear, he emphasized: Full-time, in-person learning is the top priority.
“The documented negative impact on children that resulted from the uneven, unpredictable, and profoundly difficult year that students had last year cannot and must not happen again,” he said. “In-person learning is the only available option for Massachusetts schools and their students, and hopefully today’s guidance will help local officials finish their preparations as they get ready to welcome back their students in the fall.”
The state guidance comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all students, educators, staff members, and visitors wear masks in K-12 schools this fall, regardless of their vaccination status. The American Academy of Pediatrics similarly called last week for everyone age 2 and older to wear masks in schools.
Massachusetts education leaders announced in May that all coronavirus-related protocols were being dropped for the 2021-22 academic year, though they noted at the time that they would work with public health officials to consider any necessary mask-wearing guidelines for the fall.
Friday’s guidance did not put any additional COVID-19 measures back into place for the fall.
Because of Massachusetts’ high vaccination rates and the relatively low risk COVID-19 poses for most children, Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley wrote in the guidance Friday that the “many previously instituted COVID-19 mitigation measures in school settings are no longer necessary.”
For Massachusetts’ top teachers unions, Friday’s guidance doesn’t go far enough. The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts urged the state to require — not just recommend — universal mask-wearing in K-6 schools this fall. And the Massachusetts Teachers Association called on school districts to “immediately exercise their authority and require universal masking to protect the health and safety of students, educators, and their local communities,” said president Merrie Najimy.
“This is a reckless decision,” Najimy said in a statement. “But fortunately, there is time for DESE to correct its course.”
Earlier on Friday, a parent coalition called Bring Kids Back MA urged the state not to issue a mask-wearing mandate for the fall, emphasizing that families should be able to choose whether or not their children wear face coverings in school.
Melissa Bello, a member of that parent group, said she appreciates that the new state guidance is only a recommendation, but she hopes that districts will honor that sentiment and not issue local mandates. It would have been helpful, she said, for the state to lay out coronavirus metrics illustrating why they’re recommending masks currently and when they may stop.
“We have to be really cognizant to not let the districts create their own protocols and rules,” Bello said. “They should fall in line with what DESE is saying in that they strongly recommend it.”
The state also urged schools on Friday — “and in particular those with vaccination rates below the Massachusetts state average” — to host on-site vaccination clinics during summer orientation events or at the start of the academic year to make vaccines more convenient for students and their families. The Department of Public Health will send a mobile vaccination provider to the school free of charge.
Read the full guidance released Friday: