Massachusetts K-12 students and staff members may be required to wear masks indoors at least through Oct. 1 under a proposal from Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley released Friday.
Riley plans to ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday to grant him the authority to mandate masks for all public schools until October. At that point, middle and high schools that have at least 80 percent of students and staff vaccinated would be allowed to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated people; other schools would have to keep it in place, and unvaccinated students and staff still would be required to wear masks.
“As students and staff prepare to return to school full-time, in-person, our priority is on a smooth reopening,” Riley said in a statement. “With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall.”
The mandate is a stark reversal for the Baker administration, which previously refused to issue any mask or vaccine school mandates but had strongly recommended masks for unvaccinated students and staff members; the administration also had said vaccinated students could remain unmasked. However, masks already were required for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, in school health offices and due to a federal public health order, on school buses.
The purpose of the policy, according to a statement from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is to encourage more students and staff members to get vaccinated and to “implement a uniform policy for all schools to begin the year.”
Students who cannot wear a mask due to medical conditions or behavioral needs would be exempt from the mandate, and students under 5 would not be required to wear a mask.
It’s not clear how many schools in Massachusetts already have reached that 80 percent threshold — or how close schools may be. At a press conference Friday, Baker said the state “sort of” knows where schools’ vaccination rates stand but couldn’t give a hard number.
As of Tuesday, according to state data, 92 municipalities have 80 percent or more of their 16- to 19-year-olds fully vaccinated, and 41 have 80 percent or more of their 12- to 15-year-olds vaccinated.
Despite pressure from teachers unions, medical groups, and countless parents to mandate universal masking in schools, the Baker administration has steadfastly defended its localized approach in which school districts could make their own mask-wearing mandates or set other COVID-19 protocols. Baker said just this week that “local officials need authority and the ability to make decisions on stuff like this.”
However, Baker, who also was quoted in the Friday statement announcing the proposed mandate, said “this step will increase vaccinations among our students and school staff and ensure that we have a safe school reopening.”
Asked at a press conference Friday how his philosophy on mask mandates in schools evolved, Baker said he always was willing to adjust his administration’s policy.
Universal masking in Massachusetts schools would put the state in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who both recommended masks for everyone in school buildings, regardless of vaccination status.
“It’s great to have a unified state mandate on this,” said Valerie Sussman, a Canton parent of incoming first and fourth graders who said forcing individual districts to make their own mask policies was creating “quite a bit of difficulty and trauma for parents.” But, Sussman emphasized, schools need to be considering other mitigation measures beyond simply masking and vaccinations.
“We’re dealing with a very different form of the virus than we were dealing with last year, and we can’t rely on last year’s data to determine if kids will be safe,” she said.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that the proposal for a mask mandate is a “welcome decision” but that Tuesday’s vote will be critical. She urged state board members to unanimously approve Riley’s proposal.
Even with a mask mandate, Najimy said more needs to be done, including social distancing in classrooms and upgrades to ventilation systems. Also, she said, the state must resume its tracking of coronavirus cases reported in school buildings. The state released weekly reports with the data last school year but doesn’t plan to resume the reports this fall.
“Our position has always been that we must open our schools safely,” she said. “It’s imperative that we keep them open this fall.”
Not everyone embraced the proposed mandate.
Heather Morrison, a Westwood mother of three and a member of parent coalition Bring Kids Back MA, agrees that keeping schools open is a top priority but said mask mandates aren’t the way to do it.
“This is not a completely benign effect. This is not like putting in an air filter,” she said, expressing concern that masking children may have harmful side effects. “What is this doing to our youngest learners?”
Josh Miller of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.