Thousands of Massachusetts students are masking up and heading back to classrooms for full-time, in-person learning this week, starting the third academic year marked by the anxieties and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite concerns that the highly transmissible Delta variant could complicate the safety of in-person learning, Massachusetts school leaders have chosen to keep remote learning off the table as an option this year.
Some of Massachusetts’ largest school districts welcomed students back on Monday, including Springfield and Worcester. Lowell students will return to school on Tuesday, Lawrence and Fall River on Wednesday, and Brockton and New Bedford on Thursday.
Boston and Newton public schools both will begin on Sept. 9, after the Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah holidays. In Revere, students returned Aug. 25, earlier than most other public schools in the state.
In an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus at school, nearly all Massachusetts students and staff members will be required to wear masks for the start of the academic year, regardless of vaccination status. Students are exempt from the requirement if they are under 5 years old, or have a medical or behavioral condition that interferes with mask-wearing.
After Oct. 1, schools whose student and staff member population are at least 80 percent vaccinated will be allowed to drop the mandate for vaccinated people only; unvaccinated people still will be required to wear masks.
School districts also are being offered access once again this year to free COVID-19 testing programs. The state is strongly recommending that districts participate in both diagnostic testing, which tests symptomatic individuals and close contacts, and routine pooled testing, which tests saliva samples as a group and follows up with individual testing if a group is positive. Any K-12 district or school, including private and parochial schools, can participate, though no public school student is required to get tested. There are also no statewide requirements for educators to get vaccinated, but local districts can negotiate vaccine or testing mandates with teachers unions.
About 2,000 schools have already signed up to participate in at least one of the state’s testing programs, Governor Charlie Baker said Monday, approximately double the number that participated last year.
Additionally, schools have been encouraged to host vaccine clinics to increase vaccination rates among eligible students and staff. Though the state already has one of the highest youth vaccination rates in the country, getting even more teenagers vaccinated will be key to keeping children safe in school, Baker said at a vaccine clinic at Everett High School on Monday.
About 65 percent of 12-to-15-year-olds in Massachusetts already are vaccinated, according to Baker.
Vaccines are “clearly the best way to keep everybody safe here in the Commonwealth,” Baker said.
“Kids obviously are looking forward to being back in the classroom,” he said. “Their teachers are looking forward to being able to work collaboratively and closely with them. I know the administrators and the folks in education generally are looking forward to the year, and it’s going to be up to us to do all we can to make sure that everybody who’s eligible to get vaccinated can get vaccinated, so that everybody can have a school year that’s a lot different than the one they had last year.”