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PROVIDENCE — All K-12 schools in Rhode Island will be required to have students and teachers mask up this fall, regardless of age or vaccination status.

Governor Dan McKee has been facing mounting pressure for the last month to implement a mask mandate. Earlier this summer, he “strongly recommended” that districts implement mask policies this fall, but the final decision will largely be left up to individual districts. Given the push for a full return to in-person learning, parents and teachers are concerned about the lack of a masking requirement.

On Thursday, he and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green announced that masks would be required.

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“Until we can vaccinate more students, we need masks in schools,” said McKee during a COVID-19 press conference. “As governor, I will not put student safety at risks.”

He said he will be signing an executive order to implement the mandate in schools later Thursday, in addition to an executive order that he said will help tackle the Delta variant.

The news comes as state health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott sent a letter Wednesday to superintendents and asked them to mandate masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It comes as more than a quarter of new COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island are among children under the age of 12 who cannot get vaccinated.

“The public health guidance is clear: to prevent the widespread transmission of COVID-19, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools must be wearing masks,” she wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Boston Globe. “I am writing to you to strongly urge you to act on this imperative and to enforce an indoor mask requirement across the schools in your district. I am asking you to do this to protect the health and safety of those in your community and all Rhode Islanders.”

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According to data from the state health department, Rhode Island’s test positive rate reached 3.6 percent this past week, and hospitalizations reached more than 100 for the first time since May.

As for statewide mask mandates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it now suggests that parts of the country with “substantial and high” transmission should require people to wear masks in indoor, public spaces — regardless of vaccination status.

McKee hadn’t budged on the issue, citing low hospitalization and death rates, despite increasing COVID-19 case rates and the highly contagious Delta variant.

But as of Thursday, every county in Rhode Island now has “high transmission” of COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Also on Thursday, McKee called on the General Assembly to convene “immediately” to help battle the pandemic.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.