State education board members cleared the way Tuesday for a universal indoor mask mandate in Massachusetts schools, marking a stark pivot for Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, which for weeks put the onus of in-school mask policies on local leaders.
The vote came just days after Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley unveiled a proposed mask mandate that would require all students and staff members to mask up inside until at least early October. It’s one of several major shifts in the last week as the COVID-19 threat increases with the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 9 to 1 to give Riley the authority to issue a mandate, putting an end to several weeks of turmoil and disagreement in local districts, where school committees and other leaders had been tasked with building their own mask-wearing policies while facing pressure from parents and teachers alike. Only board member Paymon Rouhanifard voted against it.
Riley is expected to formally issue the mandate this week in an effort to both create a uniform policy for all school systems to begin the year and to encourage more students and staff to get vaccinated. After Oct. 1, middle and high schools would be allowed to lift the mandate if 80 percent of students and staff in the building have received their shots, though masks would still be required for those who remained unvaccinated.
“Ultimately, we believe that vaccinations will be the most important factor in bringing this pandemic to an end,” Riley said. “We know that a return this fall to full-time, in-person instruction is crucial. And after the challenges of last year, it will be incredibly important for this year to get off on a strong start.”
Students with certain medical conditions or behavioral needs would be exempt from the mask requirement, as well as all students under age 5.
Vaccinations will not be the “sole determinant” for removing masks after Oct. 1, Riley told board members on Tuesday, and the state has not ruled out the possibility that masks may be required intermittently throughout the school year, based on the course of the pandemic.
Board member Martin West, who voted for Tuesday’s motion, and Rouhanifard expressed concerns that there’s no clear off-ramp for mandated mask-wearing for elementary school students, who are not currently eligible for the vaccines.
“I just think that erring on the side of caution loses sight of the bigger picture,” Rouhanifard said.
“I frankly think we have an opportunity, and you could argue a responsibility, to signal optimism that we are opening the door toward normalcy,” he said, pointing out that Massachusetts still has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
A group of parents, organized by Mass Against Mandates, protested at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education building in Malden on Tuesday in favor of parent choice around masking, and voiced concerns over the board’s choice to vote on the motion without any opportunity for public comment.
As recently as last week, Baker defended his decision to leave mask mandates up to local school officials. In an interview on GBH News’ “Boston Public Radio,” Baker said, “I think local officials need authority and the ability to make decisions on stuff like this.”
“We did make a very strong recommendation,” Baker added. Prior to the proposed universal mask mandate, the Baker administration had released guidance strongly recommending that all unvaccinated students and staff members wear masks, but not explicitly recommending face coverings for vaccinated students.
But Baker faced mounting pressure from teachers unions and medical associations alike. In a letter last week, Representative Ayanna Pressley also urged Baker to enact both mask and vaccine mandates in schools.
Pressed at a news conference at the State House on Friday, Baker acknowledged the about-face and said the administration is working to respond to an ever-changing threat. The evolution came amid ongoing conversations with local officials and education experts, and as state officials kept an eye on increasing COVID-19 cases.
“I said all along that we always make adjustments when we think we need to,” Baker said. “I’ve always said ‘at this time,’ too. Those are constant conversations and they evolve.”
For critics, though, the decision came too late — and the month before the shift was not just wasted time for local leaders who crafted and debated individual mask-wearing policies, but harmful for local school officials, too. Some school committee members have even faced threats from members of the public. In Amesbury, a parent said she will “devote every second of my day” to making local officials’ lives complicated if they called for a mask mandate, and someone in Dracut shouted “Nuremberg trials” at the voting members of the local school committee in reference to the trials held after World War II to bring Nazis to justice.
“The Baker administration owes our Commonwealth an apology for holding our communities’ health and well-being in limbo until mere days before children go back to classes,” said state Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat who wrote to Baker in July calling for a mask mandate in schools. The “writing was on the wall back in July” that masks should be worn in schools, Rausch said.
In addition to masks in schools, Baker reversed his position on the question of vaccine mandates for state workers. After saying for months he did not plan to require vaccines for public employees under his purview, he announced last week one of the nation’s strictest such policies for 44,000 executive department contractors and employees, saying he wanted to set an example as the state’s largest employer.
The actions are in line with a Baker administration pandemic response that has at times been marked by pivots and reversals — a strategy that critics pan as unpredictable and that allies praise as flexible in the face of a shifting emergency.
Peter Ubertaccio, a vice president at Caldwell University and longtime Massachusetts political watcher, said he doesn’t believe the pivots will hurt Baker politically “given the uniqueness of trying to govern during a rapidly changing pandemic.”
Announcing a school mask mandate earlier this summer, before it was clear where the COVID-19 trend lines would land, might have backfired, Ubertaccio added.
“It’s less of a standard political flip-flop and more simply bowing to reality,” he said. “People are willing to continue to give him room to maneuver because it’s such an extraordinary political moment.”