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HOPKINTON — By lunchtime Thursday, word had spread through Hopkinton High School about a slew of basketball players testing positive for COVID-19. Already far more students had begun wearing face-coverings in the school, which in November became the first in Massachusetts to allow vaccinated students to go mask-less.
Over lunch, five senior boys expressed anxiety. They hoped the school board that night would temporarily reinstate the school’s mask mandate. But other students wanted the relaxed mask policies, which they didn’t believe caused the outbreak, to continue. Two sophomore girls in the library studied without masks, happy to see each other’s smiles. They felt the mask-choice policy gave them something elusive in the past two years: a typical high school experience.
“Last year, it felt like you couldn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t your friend,” said Sophie Weeden, 15. “This year, it’s gotten back to a little more normal — it’s so much better.”
The division over how to proceed at Hopkinton High, one of a handful of schools that has followed the state’s protocol for making masks optional, reveals the complexity of changing COVID policies in one of the country’s most vaccinated states, as officials aim to better serve students’ learning and social needs while trying to keep families and teachers safe amid an ever-changing pandemic.
At least five schools in Massachusetts — including Westborough’s high school and middle school, Norwell High School, and King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham — have allowed vaccinated students to unmask. Most of the school districts have not seen significant increases in COVID cases among students or staff, state data show. Until this past week, neither had Hopkinton High. But as of Friday, the school had recorded 15 new cases. (As of Monday, the high school had logged another 19 infections, totaling 34 in 10 days.)
“It’s been exciting to get back to some sense of normalcy, but as we’re seeing an uptick in cases, we’re once again getting reality shoved at us,” said Hopkinton math teacher Jenna Galster, whose statistics class was about half-masked Thursday.
To become exempt from the state’s school mask mandate, the schools had to first attest to the state that 80 percent of students and staff were fully vaccinated.
While many schools in Massachusetts meet that threshold, only 28 schools have sought and received state permission to lift their mask mandates, officials said. Most have not moved forward with the change, amid rising COVID cases and the uncertainty about the new Omicron variant. In some places, like Franklin and Ashland, school officials paused plans to go mask-optional this month.
But with the state’s school mask mandate set to expire Jan. 15, education policymakers are looking toward the towns that have already allowed students to remove masks as they consider the thorny decisions about what to do in local communities. At local and state public meetings, some parents have testified through tears about their kids experiencing mental distress and learning difficulties due to masks, while other families have urged officials to protect high-risk students and staff with universal masking.
State education Commissioner Jeff Riley said Friday he would announce in early January whether, after consulting with medical experts, he would extend the mask mandate, as he has before. Riley said local communities can set their own mask mandates if the state’s expires.
“This is something we’re going to have to learn to live with,” Riley said.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association opposes allowing individual schools or districts to adopt mask-optional policies, as Hopkinton has, because families and teachers travel. President Merrie Najimy wants the state to extend its school mask mandate and set statewide metrics for loosening mask restrictions only once statewide vaccination rates rise and COVID rates fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone in schools wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, she noted.
“The governor’s policy and the Department of Education’s policy flies in the face of guidance from the CDC and common sense,” Najimy said. “Masks have become a normal part of school life — not that we want them to be there forever, but kids are flexible and they adapt.”
Public health experts are mixed on when schools should move toward not requiring masks.
More than 50,000 students and staff have tested positive for COVID so far this school year, with numbers spiking in recent weeks, according to an analysis by Harvard public health researcher Alan Charles Geller. He said the state should extend its mask mandate and not allow local communities to go mask-optional.
“Everybody wants an off-ramp but just about everybody understands now is not the time to do it,” Geller said. “We’d have to see a really large drop in the number of cases.”
School leaders say most infections in students and staff are mild and among vaccinated people. However, state data show that 23 children under 11 years old and 14 children ages 12 to 17 were hospitalized for COVID in the past two weeks.
Erin Bromage, an immunology professor at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who advises some schools in Southeast Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said students can safely — and should — remove masks if their schools have proper air filtration, ventilation, and surveillance testing of students. Masks should be required during COVID surges in schools and communities, he said, but should come off afterwards.
“Getting masks off children in school should be one of our priorities as adults,” Bromage said. “If the schools have invested in other mitigation steps, masks coming off will have a much bigger benefit for children learning than [increasing the] risk of children getting infected and having poor outcomes.”
In Westborough, where going mask-less has been an option for two weeks, most students and all teachers seem to still wear masks, said Andrew Chen, a senior and the School Committee’s student representative. Another Westborough High student testified Friday before the state Board of Education that teachers still pressure students to wear masks, so students don’t feel they truly have a choice.
In Norwell, School Committee meetings have become heated with complaints from antimask parents upset because younger students still need to wear masks. But many other families say they trust the leaders to make the right decisions and feel that the change has gone well.
Alison Demong said she’s grateful her sophomore daughter at Norwell High can remove her mask and better connect with her friends and teachers this year, after the disruptions of the past two years. Her daughter has found Spanish class easier, Demong said. She trusts the School Committee to reinstate the mask mandate if the virus spreads in school.
“It’s kind of a non-issue — I think the kids just roll with it, and it’s been positive,” Demong said.
At Hopkinton High, nearly all students are vaccinated, but only 70 percent submitted the parent permission slips to be allowed to remove their masks. That assuaged administrators’ concerns that masks would reveal students’ vaccination status. Teachers were tasked with enforcement.
A student council survey of 260 Hopkinton High students found that 63 percent said the mask-optional policy improved their learning. Some students reported “happier hallways,” “contagious smiling,” and better class discussions. With fewer masks, English language learners and students learning foreign languages reported better communication. However, some students reported feeling uncomfortable sitting next to unmasked peers and they stopped receiving up-close help from teachers.
Teachers felt differently. A survey of 36 teachers showed 39 percent felt the teaching experience improved, while 20 percent felt it worsened. Teachers reported their added responsibility of policing who could remove their masks was distracting and they grew more hesitant to assign group work or approach unmasked students. Some, however, did report stronger connections with students and having a better sense of students’ understanding of concepts.
Hopkinton High principal Evan Bishop said students have respected the requests of teachers who are pregnant, high-risk, or have other reasons for wanting students to keep masks on in their classrooms. Some teachers prefer to keep windows open, prompting students to wear coats.
Bishop has only had two students sent to his office for refusing to wear masks when required to because they lack the necessary parental permission or vaccination paperwork. Concerns about mask-shaming or bullying have not borne out, several students said.
Kavya Jeevanantham, 17, a junior, said she has kept her mask on largely to protect her immunocompromised grandmother who lives with her and the toddlers her mother teaches. But she does remove her mask sometimes, like when climbing the stairs with her backpack on.
“Cardio is not my thing,” she joked. “It’s nice to take it off then and there.”
Kris Kellenberger, a studio art teacher, has kept her mask on. She worries about bringing COVID home to her two young children.
“It’s pretty dangerous at this point,” she said. “I feel like all the signs point to we should still be wearing masks. ... It makes me pretty uneasy.”
Late Thursday, the Hopkinton superintendent recommended the School Committee reinstate the high school’s mask mandate through at least early January to protect families’ holiday plans from being derailed by further COVID spread. After a heated debate, the committee voted 3-2 to require masks again.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.