This week Governor Phillip D. Murphy of New Jersey announced his state will no longer require students and staff to wear masks in school, starting the second week of March. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont made a similar announcement hours later. And Pennsylvania rescinded its mask mandate last month.
On Monday, Governor Baker strongly hinted that Massachusetts will be next, telling reporters that Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley “will have more to say” on the matter at “some point in the not-too-distant future.” The plan, it seems, is to allow the mask mandate to expire at the end of the month rather than extending it again.
And that’s the right plan.
Masks have served as an important line of defense against COVID-19. But the facts on the ground clearly warrant a shift in policy. The Omicron variant is in retreat. Massachusetts is one of the most vaccinated states in the union. And after months and months of muffled conversation, kids deserve a chance to take off the mask and interact with their teachers and peers in a healthier way.
The Baker administration could face some blowback; pandemic-era education policy has been a minefield for state officials. Teachers unions have been understandably worried about the health of their members. Parents have had real concern about their kids. Last month, hundreds of Boston students staged walkouts, calling for a return to remote learning at the height of the Omicron scare. And if the mask mandate is relaxed, some will undoubtedly cry foul.
But the data have consistently shown that schools are safer than the doomsday predictions would have it. Just this week, a new paper by a group of Massachusetts doctors for the journal Pediatrics evaluating the state’s “test to stay” program, which allows unvaccinated children exposed to COVID to remain in school if they continually test negative, shows this population remained largely disease-free during a 13-week study period last fall — with only 2.9 percent testing positive.
Lifting the mask mandate will undoubtedly add a new level of risk. But the state can’t wait forever. Under current rules, local officials can only apply for a waiver from the mandate if they can demonstrate that 80 percent of students and staff in a building are vaccinated. And some schools, it’s clear, will never reach that threshold — particularly those with large numbers of disadvantaged kids.
Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who helped develop the state’s mask policy, says going mask-free will pose a psychological challenge. Masks are a visible sign of protection, while vaccinations, though “highly, highly effective for preventing severe disease,” are “not something we can see on a daily basis.” But we’ll need to learn to trust in the vaccines and the treatments that have been developed for the sick if we’re going to “pave a path towards normalcy for our kids,” Branch-Elliman said.
That doesn’t mean schools will get all the way back to where they were before the pandemic. Some students and staff will want to keep their KN95s in place even after the mandate is lifted. They may be worried about medical conditions that leave them especially vulnerable to COVID or about passing the disease to frail relatives at home.
It will be incumbent on schools all over Massachusetts to build a culture that respects the decisions of mask-wearers.
Hopefully, Omicron will be the pandemic’s final major surge. But schools can’t count on that. At the state level, officials should be thinking about what might trigger a reinstatement of the mask mandate — or at least, a recommendation that districts tighten the rules again. Issuing specific guidance doesn’t make much sense now, given how unpredictable COVID has been. Better to keep a close eye on how new variants unfold. But broadly speaking, an approach that focuses on hospitalizations — rather than simple case counts — makes the most sense. As the Omicron experience suggested, it’s possible, at least, that new variants will cause relatively mild illness. And we’re going to have to learn to live with that sort of thing. To adapt.
For elementary-school-age kids, the pandemic has dominated a fifth, or a quarter, or even a third of their lives.
It’s time for them to breathe easier.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.