Scores of Massachusetts communities have been so effective at getting students and school staff vaccinated that they may no longer have to abide by the state’s mask mandates for their middle and high schools right now — if they chose to.
But while more than 60 communities have met the Baker administration’s threshold of 80 percent or higher vaccination rates among teens, only two — Hopkinton and Ashland — have sought and received permission to stop requiring inoculated students and staff to wear masks in their high school.
And Hopkinton officials are having second thoughts.
The Hopkinton School Committee opted to delay any action to lift the state mask mandate in its high school even though the state gave the town permission on Oct. 7.
“At some point, I would foresee that I would be comfortable to move toward that next step” of removing masks, Nancy Cavanaugh, chairwoman of the Hopkinton committee, said during the hourlong hearing last week. “But I am not comfortable today given the health recommendations we are getting.”
Across Massachusetts, many schools are still finding their equilibrium after 18 months of pandemic upheaval, and there’s concern among superintendents that removing masks now may upset that delicate balance, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. He said that relaxing mask rules could lead to more COVID cases as well as confusion and lost learning time.
“You have a stable environment now with kids in classes and it’s working, and so one has to weigh that against what happens when masks come off,” Scott said.
Parent protests against masks tend to capture attention, but their numbers are relatively small, albeit very vocal, Scott said, at least in Massachusetts. In neighboring New Hampshire, antimask protests have been more numerous and sometimes disruptive.
There are also many parents who aren’t ready for their children to ditch masks, said Tim Piwowar, superintendent of Billerica Public Schools and president of the superintendent’s association. He said communities with the highest vaccination rates also tend to be where residents are most concerned about the COVID threat generally.
“Masks and vaccinations [have] become so politicized you wind up in a situation with the higher the vaccination rate in a community, the more likely they are to want to keep the masks in place,” Piwowar said. “And the lower the vaccination rate, the more they want the masks to be taken off.”
In Piwowar’s Billerica district, with teen vaccination rates well below the 80 percent threshold, parents have protested mask requirements.
The state in late September extended an indoor mask mandate for public schools until at least Nov. 1. The extension provides the option for middle and high schools where 80 percent or more of students and staff are vaccinated to lift the mandate. 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.
So far only two high schools, one each in Ashland and Hopkinton, have been certified by the state as meeting the threshold, but a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said two collaborative school districts may also have applied. She had no further details.
But there is growing medical evidence that vaccinated students who remove masks could unwittingly spread infections to unvaccinated people, including children under the age of 12, who are still not eligible for the shots.
New research from Mass General Brigham scientists found that unvaccinated children who get COVID infections can carry higher levels of infectious virus than adults hospitalized with COVID-19 — even though the children show few or no symptoms. The study of 110 children, with a median age of 10, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, confirms earlier findings that children are capable of becoming reservoirs for future COVID infections.
That was one of the concerns raised by Shaun McAuliffe, Hopkinton’s public health director, when he recently advised the town’s school committee to stick with masks in the high school until at least 80 percent of schoolchildren under age 12 are vaccinated. He noted that many vaccinated teens have younger siblings who aren’t yet eligible for the shots and could be vulnerable.
“It’s prudent to stay the course” on masks until then, McAuliffe said. State data show at least 95 percent of children age 12 -19 in Hopkinton are vaccinated.
The Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a meeting of its advisory committee for Oct. 26 to review Pfizer’s request to authorize its two-dose vaccine in children ages 5 to 11. If approved by the agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shots could start in November.
Nicole Kieser, spokeswoman for Andover Public Schools, said her schools are sticking with the mask mandate for now even though state data show at least 84 percent of the town’s younger teens are vaccinated, as well as 95 percent of those 16 to 19 years old.
“Given the prevalence of the highly transmissible Delta variant and its greater impact on children than earlier variants . . . requiring masks while indoors in our schools helps keep our students and staff safe,” she said.
At Dover-Sherborn Public Schools, the regional school committee is listening to the advice of the local health boards from both communities, which are made up of some high-powered medical experts, said interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith.
“What we are doing right now is taking a cautious approach,” Smith said.
Their boards of health are suggesting vaccination rates as high as 95 percent in the schools plus sustained downward trends in community infections before lifting the school mask rules.
While much attention is focused on schools hitting the state’s vaccination threshold to remove their masks, many are still struggling to get any shots in arms. In nearly a quarter of Massachusetts communities — 81 of 351 cities and towns — fewer than 60 percent of children ages 12-15 have had just one shot as of Oct. 7, according to data tracked by Alan Geller, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Included in that list are: Billerica, Brockton, Holyoke, Fall River, New Bedford, and Springfield.
Geller estimates there are roughly 192,800 children, ages 12 to 19, who are eligible for the shots but remain unvaccinated.
“If we don’t get this right now, then how are we going to do with vaccinating 5 to 11 year olds?” Geller said.
Piwowar, the president of the superintendents’ association, said school leaders are increasingly feeling drawn into a complex public health debate for which they’re not well suited.
“For all of us, our goal is to remove masks when it is safe to do so, but it should be guided by health officials, not elected officials and superintendents,” he said. “That’s the way it should happen. Shouldn’t it?”
John Hancock of the Globe staff contributed to this report.