Masks will no longer be required in Massachusetts schools as of Feb. 28, Governor Charlie Baker announced Wednesday, joining a growing list of governors, including several in the Northeast, who have recently made face coverings optional as COVID-19 cases wane across much of the country.
“Given the extremely low risk to young people, and the widespread availability of, and proven effectiveness of, vaccines, and the distribution of accurate test protocols and tests, it’s time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools,” Baker said at a State House briefing that drew protesters who demanded an end to government vaccine mandates.
The decision sparked strong reaction — both negative and positive — from parents and teachers unions, as well as infectious disease specialists, pediatricians, and politicians, underscoring how charged the public health measure has become.
The announcement by Baker and his top education leaders also drew concern from some for what it omitted: any guidance or benchmarks for when masks might be required again.
The timing for removing masks, coming just after tens of thousands of students will have returned from school vacation week, seems ill-advised, said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.
“We know that a lot of people will be traveling and we have seen in the past what happens with case rates,” she said.
Baker touted the state’s high vaccination rates as a major reason to lift the mandate, but Pavlos and other public health and infectious disease experts said that obscures the fact that those rates are markedly lower in many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Overall, 51 percent of Massachusetts children ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 83 percent of those age 12 to 15, and 82 percent of teens 16 to 19 have, according to the most recent state data. But the rates vary among communities. For example, in Worcester 38 percent of kids 5-11 have at least one shot, compared with 83 percent in Wellesley. Among kids 12 to 15, 72 percent of Worcester children have at least one shot while, in Wellesley, the number is above 95 percent.
Massachusetts, like many other states, uses a multi-tiered approach to keeping children safe in schools. It layers several measures to cover any gaps, such as masks, regular COVID testing, physical distancing, and upgrading building ventilation and filtration.
Daniele Lantagne, a Tufts University infectious diseases professor who helped craft child mask-wearing guidance for the World Health Organization, said that given the declining COVID cases and hospitalizations, it makes sense to remove what many see as the most onerous of those layers: masks.
“Right now, it is appropriate to lift this mitigation,” Lantagne said. “We are not getting rid of all mitigations. The [ventilation system] is still there, and the testing is there.”
But Dr. Jonathan Levy, who chairs the department of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said that just as there are inequities in vaccination rates among low-income and communities of color, so too are there disparities in school ventilation and filtration systems.
“For schools that had the resources and capacity to invest in those things, that adds protections and makes it easier to have voluntary masking,” he said. “But if you strip away that layer of protection, every other layer becomes that much more important.”
Dr. Julia Koehler, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of pediatrics and infectious disease who has cared for children severely ill with COVID, said that removing masks while transmission rates in Massachusetts are still high sends a chilling message to communities that have suffered the most losses.
“So many children in Hispanic and Black families have become orphans and have seen people around them, including children, get sick,” she said. “And now they get the message that somehow their sickness, their sadness, their loss does not matter.”
Masks will still be required on school buses per federal order, and local school districts will have the option to keep their own mask mandates.
But relegating authority to the local level has raised concerns about children who continue to wear masks being bullied or feeling forced to remove the coverings to fit in.
Jeffrey C. Riley, the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner, said schools should strive to make everyone comfortable.
“While masking is no longer a statewide requirement,” he said, “we ask all school leaders and students to make sure they respect all individual choices around mask wearing.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics continue to urge masks in school. So does the state chapter of the academy.
But Massachusetts is hardly alone in lifting mask rules.
Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee announced Wednesday that he plans to end the statewide masking requirement in schools and state offices on March 4. His decision is pending the approval of the General Assembly of a joint resolution that extends the governor’s emergency authority for 45 days.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy announced Monday that a statewide mask mandate in schools will be lifted effective March 7.
Connecticut will allow students and staff members to stop wearing masks in schools by no later than Feb. 28. And governors of Delaware and Oregon also said this week that they intend to relax mask mandates at the end of March.
In Massachusetts, parents said they are planning how they will handle the new rules.
Suleika Soto, a parent organizer with two children in the Boston school system, said her two daughters, in the eighth and fifth grades, will continue wearing their masks in school. Too much was uncertain, Soto said, such as whether their classmates are vaccinated, and what new variants may begin to spread.
“It’s going to confuse families who are following the science and the CDC recommendations,” she said. “We are hoping that the City of Boston will continue to have its mask mandate in school until at least the end of the school year, or at least until we know we’re out of the woods.”
Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang echoed that sentiment, saying the union will “continue to encourage mask-wearing in schools until the vaccination rate for students is significantly higher.”
In Needham, Melissa Bello, an organizer of Bring Kids Back MA, a parents coalition that has lobbied for dropping widespread COVID-19 restrictions, said her children will be “thrilled” to hear they would not have to wear masks in school anymore. Her son has hearing loss, she said, and it’s made focusing in class more challenging.
“These kids have been ping-ponged so much,” Bello said. “And I likely will never understand why we have restricted kids the longest and the most when they are the least at-risk group.”
Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy said many are fatigued with masks.
“But it’s tempered,” she said, “by real anxiety that if we remove the masks too soon without having an increase in vaccination rates, that students, educators and families will all continue to have their health impacted.”