State education officials on Monday extended the indoor mask mandate in Massachusetts public schools until at least Nov. 1, a decision that sparked frustration among some parents and infectious disease doctors, though for very different reasons.
The extension provides the option for middle and high schools where 80 percent or more of their students and staff are vaccinated to lift the mandate well before Nov. 1. Once the state reviews documentation of the high vaccination rate submitted by the school, vaccinated students and staff will no longer be required to wear masks, said Colleen Quinn, a Baker administration spokeswoman.
She said the state does not yet know how many districts have already met the 80 percent threshold.
“We know some communities will want to submit verification quickly, and other communities might choose to continue their mask policies for now,” Education Secretary James Peyser said in a statement. “This policy allows communities to make the decision at the local level.”
Until a school’s mandate is lifted, masks are required for all students and staff indoors, except when eating or drinking, or during mask breaks.
Unvaccinated students and staff will still be required to wear masks, even when a school has lifted its mandate, though a top education official said the state is hoping to ease restrictions on younger students.
“As health conditions evolve, we will continue to work with medical experts to find masking offramps for our youngest students who are not yet eligible for vaccines,” Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley said in a statement.
Melissa Bello, an organizer of Bring Kids Back MA, a parents coalition that has lobbied for dropping widespread COVID-19 restrictions, said she was disappointed by the extension of the mask policy, though she is encouraged the state is thinking about removing masks for younger children.
“The goalposts keep moving and kids are entangled in this mess,” said Bello, a Needham parent with two school-aged children.
“When [the state] says the decision will be left up to the districts, we saw how well that played out with hybrid models [where some students attended in-person, while others learned remotely] and it was a disaster,” she said.
The state’s decision comes days after two studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that masks in schools tamped down infections. The studies found that school districts without a universal masking policy in place were more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks.
One report from Arizona revealed that schools in two of the state’s most populous counties were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks if they did not have a mask requirement at the start of school, compared with schools that required universal masking on day one. Another analysis of more than 500 counties nationwide found that counties with school mask requirements saw smaller increases in pediatric COVID-19 cases at the start of the school year than in those without the mask requirements.
Dr. Regina LaRocque, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said now is not the time for the state to be moving toward lifting school mask mandates.
“Masks are proven to protect the health of children in schools and in their communities and we need to continue universal masking in schools in Massachusetts for now as the nation faces a surge in the Delta variant,” she said.
“We don’t need the state to be talking about ‘off-ramps’ to masking in Massachusetts,” LaRocque said. “We need a comprehensive COVID control plan.”
But Dr. Elissa Perkins, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and director of emergency medicine and infectious disease management at Boston Medical Center, said it’s not necessary for vaccinated students and staff to continue to wear masks after a school has reached an 80 percent vaccination rate or higher.
Perkins has been advising state Education Commissioner Riley, and was part of the team that devised the 80 percent school vaccination threshold.
“It makes very little sense to require students and staff to wear masks in schools when those same teachers and students are not required to mask in other settings,” she said.
Perkins said it makes sense for unvaccinated people in schools to continue to wear masks for their own personal protection.
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center who also has been advising the state, said the plan to extend universal masking until Nov. 1 – except for schools that meet the 80 percent threshold — makes sense, although not for scientific reasons.
“It’s needed to provide a level of comfort, to ease the anxiety of people in the school buildings and their families,” she said. “We need a little more time for people to see and feel it’s safe and we don’t have an out of control outbreak situation.”