Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced the city will not lift the mask mandate in Boston Public Schools on Thursday, a day after Governor Charlie Baker said he will end statewide mask requirements for students and teachers at the end of the month.
“I won’t presume to know what should or could have gone into the governor’s calculation,” Wu said during a news conference. “What I know is that the city of Boston is not ready to lift our mask mandate, and so ours will stay in place for the time being.”
The Boston Public Health Commission is looking at some of the same metrics they are tracking for city-wide indoor vaccine and mask requirements: a community positivity rate below 5 percent, fewer than 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day, and intensive care units having fewer than 95 percent of beds full.
But to remove masks in schools, Wu said the city will wait until it sees “a consistent trend of downward progress.” She noted that younger children are not being vaccinated at as high a rate as adults, and that school-aged children have to share small spaces in class.
“Our Boston Public Health Commission has determined that we need to see consistent downward trend of these numbers, so that we are not just dipping above and below and above and below,” Wu said. “At the same time, I have two kids in our schools, I know it’s been such a challenging set of years for our entire school communities.”
She added that, as the weather improves, school officials will find more outdoor time when students can be unmasked.
Tiffany Luo, a senior at Boston Latin School, said she was glad to hear the mask mandate would stay. Some of her friends and classmates caught the virus during the Omicron variant wave, even with vaccines and masks, which was concerning because students share such close quarters in school, she said.
But she listed lingering concerns: poor ventilation in old buildings, unvaccinated classmates, students whose anxieties have continued rising as they worry about unwittingly bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members, or getting ill themselves.
“If I didn’t have my mask, I would feel so much more unsafe,” Luo said. I would be so much more anxious. I have a lot of high risk people at home and I would not want to risk the health and the life of the people I care about.”
In his announcement Wednesday, Baker emphasized that cities and towns can make their own policies around masks in schools, but the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will no longer require them starting Feb. 28. Some suburban districts had already submitted proof of high vaccination rates and low transmission rates to get a waiver from the state, allowing students to do away with their masks in school.
“I am not going to pretend that I can know what’s best statewide,” Wu said on Thursday. “All I know is the city of Boston. And the best that we can do is make informed decisions for our residents though a collaborative open process, through data and metrics.”
Wu had made her thoughts on lifting school mask mandates known soon after Baker’s announcement.
On Wednesday night Wu asked a room of high school students, members of the Mayor’s Youth Council, to raise their hands if they believed the city should keep its mask requirement in place beyond Feb. 28, when the state mandate will expire.
Almost all of them did, Wu said in a tweet Wednesday night, sharing a photo of students with their hands raised.
Tonight I met with 70+ of our most engaged high schoolers in Boston. When asked how many believe we should keep masks on beyond 2/28 in @BostonSchools: pic.twitter.com/HktpIKDJFT— Michelle Wu 吳弭 (@wutrain) February 10, 2022
“Our young people don’t have the luxury of being irresponsible, or even carefree,” Wu said in a follow-up tweet. “They’re eager learners and experienced organizers. They see no other choice but to clean up after generations of adults before — for climate, equity, and yes, public health right now.”
As the wave of Omicron variant cases wanes in the US, other governors have also announced they will remove mask requirements in schools. The Democratic governors of New Jersey and Connecticut this week announced they will end school mask mandates in their states, as did officials in Oregon and Delaware.
But Boston is not a complete outlier in being slower to remove masks in schools. New York State is keeping its mask requirements in schools, even while lifting them for other indoor businesses. In Massachusetts, Northampton and Chelsea will keep their mask requirements, as other districts said they will meet with school committees and boards of health to decide.
Some suburban districts went the other way, asking the state for permission to let their students remove their masks in school earlier. High schools in Hopkinton, Westborough, Norwell, and King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham do not require students to wear masks.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said Wednesday afternoon that it was dropping all school mask mandates at its parochial schools effective Feb. 28.
Advocates say there are differences between the school systems, including older buildings with poor ventilation and the share of students who live in multigenerational households, where getting sick might mean exposing relatives who are older or at-risk.
“The good news is that there are some clear steps that BPS can take to make mealtimes safer,” said Sarah Horsley, a Boston parent and co-founder of the group BPS Families for COVID Safety. “BPS should immediately implement measures to promote physical distancing and improve ventilation and filtration during mealtimes, such as assuring that there are enough portable air cleaners with HEPA [high-efficiency particulate absorbing] filters in every cafeteria.”
Children in Boston are less likely to be vaccinated than their counterparts in wealthier, whiter suburbs. According to state data, 32 percent of children in Boston aged 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, as are 70 percent of teenagers aged 12 to 15 and 47 percent of teens aged 16 to 19. In Hopkinton, by comparison, more than 95 percent of residents aged 5 to 19 are vaccinated.
Wu’s confirmation that Boston would keep its school mask requirements came during a press conference where she first announced a series of listening sessions for Bostonians to get more involved in the municipal budget process by telling city officials where they would like to see their tax dollars spent.
The move was a response to voters’ overwhelming support of a November ballot question asking if the city should overhaul the municipal budget process.
“By the time we got to the point in the process late in spring where residents could actually come in, express their views, and give feedback, many of the line items were already locked in,” Wu said. “And the changes that came as a result of that feedback and time and sweat equity that our residents had put in often didn’t reflect the scale and scope and urgency of what we had received.”
The city will hold four virtual listening sessions between Feb. 15 and 25. Residents can register for them on the city’s website, Boston.gov.
Boston voters approved a ballot measure in November that changed the municipal budget process, giving the council more sway over taxpayer dollars. The city has historically had a strong mayor structure, which gave the chief executive almost complete power over the budget, though the City Council could approve or reject it wholesale. More than two-thirds of Boston voters supported the measure.
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.