We are concerned about rising COVID-19 cases, the predominance of the aggressive Delta variant, and a return to K-12 school in person without a more comprehensive plan for keeping children, families, and school employees safe. Most of the Commonwealth now falls under the masking advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly 72,000 children nationwide were diagnosed with COVID-19 the last week of July. While case numbers have dipped for the first week of August, this is not the time to retreat, as school districts are about to embark on bringing thousands of staff and students back into school. Unless the state implements preventive measures that follow science and not politics, schools will be ground zero in the fall, with approximately 456,000 unvaccinated kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students at particular risk.
Governor Charlie Baker should follow the recommendations of state and national public health leaders, including his own advisers and members of his administration, and announce stronger mandates for masking, vaccination requirements, and testing in K-12 schools. This aligns with recommendations released by the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and local experts. Dr. Kristin Moffitt, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, was recently quoted saying that the best approach to keeping kids safe in school is to have everybody wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. These protections for children should not depend on the political will of each community.
While Baker might find comfort in using the term “strongly recommend” with regard to masking, school systems need better leadership. He must lean in and follow the science. The state cannot afford to risk more COVID-related closures, the additional loss of in-person learning, or the economic hardships some families may face if their children are required to attend school remotely, again.
The governor’s current guidance relies too much on hope and the honor system for grades 7 through 12, both of which have already failed us nationally and are in large part why we are where we are today. The governor should also provide more specific guidance on indoor and outdoor gatherings for the public at large.
We applaud Baker’s vaccine mandates with regard to staff at long-term care facilities. He should likewise mandate vaccinations, with limited exemptions, for teachers and staff in K-12 schools. While the CDC has found that the Delta variant can be transmitted from a person who is vaccinated to a person who is unvaccinated, it is important to note that people who are unvaccinated are the driving force behind the outbreaks. According to recent polling, mandating COVID-19 vaccinations in schools would be a popular decision, with more than 80 percent of respondents favoring a mandate. Requirements for schools should have the same level of accountability as those for our long-term care facilities.
The Department of Public Health continues to step up, ensuring that pooled testing programs are funded and available for schools that choose to participate. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should assume all schools will be participating in pooled testing. This still empowers schools to work with caregivers on consent forms while ensuring that all schools are able to provide the opportunity for testing. Pooled testing should be made available with as few barriers as possible.
Finally, it is important to establish a point person within the administration whose sole job it is to evaluate, using an equity lens, COVID-19 vaccination rates, and the disproportionate impact that this pandemic has had on low-income families and communities of color. We have seen and continue to see the disparate outcomes that result from failing to address social determinants of health as well as the inequities and pain exacerbated by the pandemic. At the same time, we have seen community leaders come together to respond to these challenges, providing opportunities for state collaboration throughout the process of economic, educational, and emotional recovery.
The governor should not feel pressured to make a choice between political convenience and conscientious leadership. He should act now to keep our children and our Commonwealth as safe as can be.
Representative Marjorie C. Decker and Senator Jo Comerford are chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health.