In an effort to give elementary schools time to get their student population vaccinated before masks no longer are required, Massachusetts education leaders have extended the universal mask mandate for most public schools through Jan. 15, 2022, the state said on Tuesday.
The mandate, which was previously set to expire on Nov. 1, requires all students and staff members 5 years and older to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, except when eating, drinking, or during mask breaks. Masks are not required outdoors, and masks are recommended but not required for children under 5.
Schools still will have the option to request permission to lift the mask requirement for vaccinated individuals if at least 80 percent of their student and staff body is vaccinated. The decision to lift masks is a local one, state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has said, and districts are not required to take advantage of it.
As of Tuesday, the state has received 14 requests from schools looking to lift their mask mandate, according to state education spokeswoman Colleen Quinn. This includes nine public high schools, one public middle school serving grades 7 and 8, and four approved special education schools.
Though it’s not clear whether they will move forward with formally lifting their mandate, seven schools have been approved: Hopkinton High School, Ashland High School, Westborough High School, Sarah Gibbons Middle School in Westborough, Algonquin Regional High School, the New England Academy School, and the Corwin-Russell School @ Broccoli Hall.
Riley said Tuesday’s decision was made “after consulting with medical experts and state health officials” and that the state will continue to use public health data and other criteria to decide when to lift the mask requirement.
“Masks remain a simple and effective measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep students in school safely,” Riley said in a statement Tuesday. “Together with the Test and Stay program, high vaccination rates, low transmission rates in schools and all the hard work in keeping our students safe, our kids are able to stay in school where they belong and can flourish.”
With vaccines expected to be available for 5- to 11-year-olds in the coming weeks, education Secretary James Peyser said in the statement that the “extension of the mask requirement will allow time for the elementary school population to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”
“This will be another big step forward in our efforts to keep school safe for our kids,” he added.
Of the about 920,000 public schools students in Massachusetts, about 11,143 have reported positive cases of coronavirus to their districts since the start of the academic year. Though case numbers have spiked to levels never seen last school year — when the student population was significantly lower on campuses — cases have gradually decreased in recent weeks. For the week ended Oct. 20, just 0.2 percent of students and 0.25 percent of staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.
Experts have said COVID-19 transmission is extremely limited in schools and many children are contracting the virus by spending time with unvaccinated adults or during out-of-school activities.