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With Mass. lifting school mask mandate, local districts now weigh their own requirements

Students waited in line in a hallway as they wore masks during summer school at Horace Mann School in Salem.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

With the Baker administration announcing Wednesday that the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools in Massachusetts will end Feb. 28, decisions on whether children and staff will be required to wear masks in classrooms will soon be up to individual districts.

In announcing the decision, Governor Charlie Baker cited “the extremely low risk for young people,” the availability and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, and school testing protocols.

“It’s time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools,” Baker said.

Baker also noted that some students will continue to wear masks after the mandate ends, and said the state fully supports “those individual decisions, and we would urge everyone in K-12 education to do the same.”

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After implementing a mask mandate for K-12 schools in late August, the state extended the requirement multiple times, most recently on Jan. 10 as the Omicron variant caused cases to soar. Now, individual communities will be tasked with deciding whether to impose their own school mask mandates — or no longer require one.

Dozens of schools, however, had already sought to end masking. Under a measure set by the Baker administration, schools could apply to lift the mandate if 80 percent of their students and staff were vaccinated. Forty-two schools had received approval to drop mask requirements, Jeffrey Riley, the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner, said at the briefing Wednesday, and schools will no longer have to apply after Feb. 28.

On Wednesday, several school systems said they will continue to require masks. Boston Public Schools said in a statement that it was reviewing the state’s decision but would continue masking requirements for students and staff.

“We remain in close contact with our partners at the Boston Public Health Commission and will continue our masking requirements for students and staff in our schools and on our school buses,” the statement said. “Masking has been and will continue to be a critical component of our health and safety protocols along with access to COVID-19 testing, efforts to vaccinate eligible students and staff, and the work to promote ventilation in school buildings.”

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Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said the union will “continue to encourage mask-wearing in schools until the vaccination rate for students is significantly higher.”

“According to our health advisors, masking remains one of the most important mitigation efforts, particularly for our students, staff, and communities in areas where student vaccination numbers are low,” she said.

Suleika Soto, a parent organizer with two children in the Boston school system, said her two daughters, in 5th and 8th grade, would have continued to wear their masks in school regardless of what officials decided.

Too much was uncertain, Soto said, like whether their classmates are vaccinated and what new variants could begin to spread. And, she noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend universal indoor masking in schools.

“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,” she said.

Somerville Public Schools said its COVID-19 measures currently “remain unchanged,” including mask requirements.

“We’ll continue to evaluate local, state, and national guidance, and modify our safety measures according to community data and expert recommendations,” spokeswoman Susana Hernandez Morgan said in an e-mail. “We will share any updates that we may make to our current protocols as they’re determined.”

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In Chelsea, Superintendent Almi Abeyta said that the mask mandate would stay in place “since we had a mask mandate in place prior to DESE’s mandate.” Northampton Schools Superintendent John Provost said that district will also keep its mask mandate, in line with an order that includes all public buildings.

But other districts said they have not yet decided what to do.

Liz Polay-Wettengel, a spokeswoman for Salem Public Schools, said in an e-mail to the Globe that the district is meeting with its health advisors on Thursday “to discuss and make a decision.”

Needham Schools Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst said on Twitter Wednesday morning that “early next week” he will update the community on “next steps around masking.”

“As we have since the pandemic began 2 years ago, we will continue to prioritize healthy & safe schools in Needham,” the tweet read.

In Needham, Melissa Bello said her children would be “thrilled” at the possibility of no longer needing to wear masks in school.

Her son has hearing loss, she said, and it has made focusing in class more challenging. The pandemic has caused social and emotional damage to children, she said, and her kids wanted some normalcy.

“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.”

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Natick Public Schools Superintendent Anna Nolin said in an update on the district’s website that “once we collaborate with our local board of health, we will come back to the community about next steps and timelines.”

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda likewise said district officials will meet with the school committee and city health department. She did not have a timeline.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said Wednesday afternoon that it was dropping all school mask mandates at its parochial schools effective Feb. 28.

“As always, however, we will follow any local health board mandates,” said Thomas 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.”

Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her @amandakauf1. Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.