Massachusetts public school students and staff are required to wear masks inside school buildings effective immediately, regardless of vaccination status, according to a mandate issued Wednesday by Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.
Under the requirement, most people will be required to wear masks until at least Oct. 1, with just a handful of exceptions. After that date, schools that have 80 percent or more of their students and staff fully vaccinated will be allowed to drop the mandate for vaccinated people only; unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks.
Students under age 5 are strongly recommended — but not required — to wear a mask. Students and staff who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons and students who have behavioral concerns are also exempt. Students and staff can remove their masks indoors while eating, drinking, or during mask breaks.
Students can also remove their masks indoors if it is necessary to participate in an elective class, such as playing an instrument in a band, according to the official mandate, sent to districts on Wednesday.
All students and staff are required to wear masks on school buses due to a federal order.
Riley’s order follows a Tuesday vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education granting him the authority to mandate masks when he feels necessary. The purpose of the mandate is two-fold, according to a statement from the state last week: to create a uniform policy for all school systems to begin the year and to encourage more students and staff to get vaccinated.
Prior to the mandate, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration had strongly recommended unvaccinated students and staff mask up, but had not explicitly recommended the same for vaccinated students. Baker had emphasized the importance of local control, urging districts to enact their own mask-wearing policies based on the needs of their community.
But the administration pivoted last week, telling reporters when pressed on the about-face that “we always make adjustments when we think we need to.”
Many people have touted Riley’s decision to start the academic year with a mask-wearing mandate.
Dr. Carole E. Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the masking requirement will help keep students in school with little disruption.
“Masking is a mitigation measure that is proven to reduce the spread of the virus,” Allen said in a statement. “It is imperative that we closely follow public health metrics throughout the school year and allow the data to steer future guidance aimed at achieving a safe environment for all students, teachers, and staff.”
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, has urged Baker to instate both mask and vaccine mandates in public schools. In a statement issued Tuesday, she said the requirement for most students to wear masks in school buildings in September is “a significant advancement toward keeping our communities safe as we prepare for a return to full in-person learning.”
“Students of all ages have been champions from the beginning,” Najimy said. “They quickly learned an important lesson of life – that when they wear their masks, they are protecting their peers, educators, and the entire school community. Masks have become routine for them. We can count on students to do their part once again to help this comprehensive policy succeed as classes resume.”
AFT Massachusetts president Beth Kontos said while the group remains concerned about the current plan to relax masking requirements for some students as soon as Oct. 1, beginning the school year with universal masking will help maximize safety for in-person learning.
Riley’s decision “is an important step to protect the health and safety of students, as well as their educators and families,” she said.
And Representative Ayanna Pressley, who wrote a letter to Baker last week urging him to adopt mask and vaccine mandates in schools, applauded the administration for aligning with federal health recommendations. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended that everyone in school buildings, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks.
In a statement Tuesday, Pressley urged him to do even more.
“But make no mistake, this pandemic is not over and our work to collectively safeguard our communities continues,” she said. “With the highly contagious delta variant continuing to spike statewide, Governor Baker must also reinstate plans to collect and publish positive COVID-19 cases in schools to ensure that we can monitor infections and outbreaks in real time.”
Prior to the announcement of the public school mandate on Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Boston also changed its mask-wearing policy for schools. Despite an earlier decision to ban mask requirements for vaccinated people — a policy that sparked backlash from some parents — the Catholic Schools Office said Wednesday that all students 5 and older will be required to wear masks indoors.
“Although the Governor’s guidelines only apply to public schools, we have informed the Archdiocese of Boston’s Catholic schools of our decision for them to implement universal indoor masking through October 1, 2021, as the Governor has proposed for public schools for students five and older,” according to a statement from the school. “At that time, we will evaluate our policy moving forward reflecting on state and federal guidance, updated health data, and input from schools and parents.”
Read the full mandate: