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Baker digs in on mask-wearing in schools: ‘I don’t think you can apply a national standard’ to Massachusetts

Governor Charlie Baker kept his balance on some beams in the backyard play area at a Summer Step Up Program at For Kids Only - Youth in Motion in Revere on Tuesday.
Governor Charlie Baker kept his balance on some beams in the backyard play area at a Summer Step Up Program at For Kids Only - Youth in Motion in Revere on Tuesday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Despite persistent calls from teachers unions this week for widespread mask-wearing in schools, Governor Charlie Baker dug in Tuesday, emphasizing he wants the decision to remain in local hands.

While saying the state will strongly recommend masks for unvaccinated students and staff this fall, he said school districts should decide what is best for their staff and students.

“I’m not going to get into making decisions that I believe, in many cases, ought to be driven, at the end of the day, by the folks at the local level who know those communities best,” Baker said Tuesday at an event in Revere. “That said, it’s a strong recommendation for K through 6 that kids should wear masks because there is no vaccine available for K through 6.”

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The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced recommendations last week that unvaccinated students, educators, and staff members, and all students in kindergarten through sixth grade (most of whom are unvaccinated) should wear masks inside school buildings this fall, but stopped short of mandating it. Vaccinated students can go without, the state said.

Local school districts can make adjustments to their mask-wearing policies based on what they feel is best for their schools, Baker has said.

But teachers unions and some state legislators have urged Baker to either require or recommend masks for all students and staff members in schools, regardless of their vaccination status — a guidance that would fall in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s board of directors unanimously voted Sunday to urge Baker to enact a mask mandate for all public school students and staff members from pre-kindergarten through higher education. And the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts wants Baker to require masks for everyone in K-6 schools.

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Some state legislators also have urged Baker to strengthen his guidance. State Senator Becca Rausch filed a bill Monday to require universal mask-wearing among students and staff members in Massachusetts K-12 schools and child care programs. And state Representative Mindy Domb tweeted that everyone should wear a mask in K-12 schools and Baker should follow the CDC guidance.

Baker said Tuesday he issued a recommendation, rather than a mandate, to acknowledge that “different communities are in different places.” While some communities have 85 to 95 percent of their eligible student body vaccinated, many other districts are seeing much smaller vaccination numbers, he said.

“I don’t think you can apply a national standard to a state that is in the kind of space that we’re in,” he said.

Baker also wrongly asserted Tuesday that the state’s decision for vaccinated students and staff members to go mask-less is “consistent with CDC guidance.” It is not; the CDC, as of last week, recommends all students, teachers, staff, and visitors wear masks in K-12 schools, no matter their vaccination status.

Baker visited the Summer Step Up program at For Kids Only – Youth in Motion in Revere. The program is intended to prepare the state’s youngest students to enter school in the fall, an effort made increasingly important due to the disruptions of the pandemic, Baker said.

The state didn’t ask schools this summer to “focus on academics,” Baker said. “We really wanted people to make this about more than that, including playtime, enrichment activities, and social engagement. Those are all things that we think have been in short supply for a lot of kids over the course of the past summer.”

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.