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Despite pressure to enact a mask mandate in schools, Governor Baker isn’t budging

Governor Charlie Baker.Steven Senne/Associated Press

In the face of growing pressure to enact a mask mandate in school buildings this fall, Governor Charlie Baker stood firmly by his position Wednesday that local districts can make their own rules, but the state will not issue the requirement.

“I believe, based on what I’ve heard from our colleagues in local government, that the vast majority, if not all, K-through-six programs in Massachusetts are going to have a mask requirement for their unvaccinated students until such time that the vaccine is available and can be applied to their kids,” Baker said Wednesday during an interview on GBH’s Boston Public Radio.

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Baker said he expects “virtually every” K-6 student in Massachusetts and unvaccinated 12-to-19-year-old to be masked in schools.

Massachusetts’ current mask-wearing guidance for the fall strongly recommends students in kindergarten through sixth grade (nearly all of whom are unvaccinated) and all other unvaccinated students and staff members wear masks indoors.

Asked twice why he won’t mandate masks statewide — especially as he expects most local districts to require them — Baker emphasized the state is strongly recommending them, but local leaders need the authority to determine the coronavirus risk in their own communities.

He criticized governors of other states, such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, who have banned schools from mandating masks.

“If you have a big population of adults who aren’t vaccinated, the question about giving locals the ability to make decisions based on both community transmission, the number of adults who aren’t vaccinated, and all the rest, I mean, that completely changes the risk equation,” Baker said.

“I am a former local official,” he added. “I think local officials need authority and the ability to make decisions on stuff like this.”

Baker’s comments came as teachers unions escalate their calls for Baker to require everyone in school buildings to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. That policy would put the state in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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US Representative Ayanna Pressley also joined the debate this week, sending Baker a letter on Tuesday that implored him to create both mask and vaccine mandates in schools.

“Because many classrooms, filled with unvaccinated children and lacking proper ventilation, have the potential to be petri dishes for the coronavirus, there is growing support by educators and public health experts for requiring vaccination for all school personnel,” she wrote.