The Baker administration announced Wednesday that the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools will be lifted Feb. 28, joining a handful of other states that have recently announced similar moves as the Omicron-fueled COVID-19 surge declines.
”Today’s announcement is another big step forward to safely manage COVID while we get back to what I would describe as the familiar and normal aspects of school and life,” Governor Charlie Baker said during a State House briefing Wednesday.
Masks will still be required on school buses per federal order, officials said, and local school districts will have the option to keep their own mask mandates in place if they wish.
Jeffrey C. Riley, the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner, said Wednesday that removing the mask requirement will make it “easier for students to learn,” particularly young readers and students learning English as a second language. He noted, however, that some students will continue to mask and should be supported.
“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 decision to lift the mandate drew mixed reactions Wednesday, with teachers unions and some Democratic lawmakers sharply criticizing the Republican governor while the heads of groups representing superintendents and school committees were more receptive.
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted the move in a statement released after the briefing.
“COVID-19 remains a serious threat in dozens of Massachusetts school districts where vaccine rates for children ages 5 to 11 are dangerously low,” Kontos said. “We expect many of those districts to maintain their in-school mask mandates. And we again call on the Baker administration to conduct comprehensive in-school vaccination programs, particularly in poorer, urban communities that have been devastated by the pandemic.”
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said via email however that history will “vindicate” Baker and Reilly. Koocher added that he hopes history also vindicates the “courageous” school leaders who want to keep the masks on for a while longer.
“Bay Staters will generally do what they’re asked to do, but resist when they’re told to do something,” Koocher said. “And given the pressure from outside the state to remove masks, this move isn’t surprising. However, we are concerned that, until COVID is overcome, we will have local tensions playing out over masks all over Massachusetts.”
Thomas A. Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said in a statement that school officials knew the rescindment would come at some point.
“With Omicron cases declining, superintendents were well aware that at some point there would be an ‘off ramp’ to masking which would move the state mandate to local control,” Scott said, adding that the switch ”will take some time for everyone to adjust but we are confident that we can move to a better place for our students.”
While conceding that no one knows what the future of the pandemic looks like, Riley defended the decision to allow districts to make their own choices on mandates in light of the state change.
“What happens next,” he said, “will happen at the local level.”
High vaccination rates among the school-age population and overall make lifting the statewide mandate possible, Baker said, as do school testing programs.
”Most states don’t have a kind of surveillance testing program that we have in place. Most states don’t have pool testing,” Baker said. “Most states don’t have take-home tests. We also have one of the lowest hospitalization rates in the country.”
As of Feb. 1, 51 percent of Massachusetts residents ages 5 to 11 had received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 83 percent of youths age 12 to 15 and 82 percent of teens 16 to 19 have, according to the most recent data posted to the DPH website.
Vaccines for children under 5 have not yet been approved.
The Department of Early Education and Care also will lift mask requirements currently in place for all licensed child care providers effective Feb. 28, and let programs develop policies specific to the children they serve, officials said. DESE will release additional guidance for programs next week.
But state Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat who serves on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, suggested in a statement that removing the school mandate now is premature.
“I support the experts at the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics who still recommend universal indoor school masking to keep students, teachers, and their families safe from COVID-19,” Rausch said. “I hold in my heart all the Bay Staters worried by today’s announcement, especially our families with older adults, immunocompromised individuals, and children under five who are still ineligible to get vaccinated.”
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and former teacher who’s running for governor, also blasted Baker.
She said in a statement that “today’s decision by Governor Baker and DESE to lift the school mask mandate does not reflect the reality of our situation. While Massachusetts cases are, thankfully, declining from our unprecedented spike last month, our numbers are not low. Community transmission rates are still ranking as ‘high’ in every county of the Commonwealth, our hospitalization rates are still as high as they were near the end of December, and the CDC still recommends universal masking for our students.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said Wednesday afternoon that it was dropping all school mask mandates at its parochial schools effective Feb. 28, in light of the Baker administration’s move.
“As always, however, we will follow any local health board mandates,” said Thomas W. Carroll, the archdiocese’s school superintendent. “Similarly, we will follow the existing federal order for mask wearing on school buses. DESE guidance on mask wearing for students returning after COVID cases will remain.”
The Massachusetts move follows similar announcements in other states.
In Rhode Island, Governor Dan McKee, a Democrat, was expected to announce Wednesday that the state’s requirement for masking or providing proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests for indoor public places and large venues will expire Friday. The governor will lift the statewide masking requirement in schools and state offices on March 4.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announced Monday that a statewide mask mandate in schools will be lifted effective March 7.
And The New York Times reported Monday that Connecticut will allow students and staff members to stop wearing masks in schools by no later than Feb. 28, after Gov. Ned Lamont recommended the statewide mask mandate end that day.
The governors of Delaware and Oregon also made announcements on Monday about relaxing mask mandates at the end of March, and California officials said that state’s universal mask mandate for indoor public places would be lifted next week, the Times reported.
“Governors across nation are lifting mask mandates,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a leading pandemic watcher, via Twitter following Baker’s briefing. “While I’ve called for waiting a few more weeks until hospitalizations drop further, I understand our leaders reflect where folks are. But let’s not waste this reprieve. Let’s prepare for whatever future surges & variants may come.”
Governors across nation are lifting mask mandates— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) February 9, 2022
While I've called for waiting a few more weeks until hospitalizations drop further
I understand our leaders reflect where folks are
But let's not waste this reprieve
Lets prepare for whatever future surges & variants may come
Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.