After extended deadlines, tense debates, protests, and a COVID case surge earlier this year, Massachusetts lifted its statewide school mask mandate Monday. Dozens of districts across the state will now be “mask-optional,” with some schools shedding mask rules for the first time since the pandemic started.
The state’s mandate removal doesn’t override rules issued by individual districts, leaving it up to local school committees and boards of health to lift or maintain school masking protocols.
Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Springfield public schools are among several districts choosing to keep their mask mandates in place for now, deciding on removal later. Others, including Lynn, Medford and Revere, have set dates in March for removing their mandates.
In districts that have decided to strike down their local rules or never implemented them in the first place, school staff, parents, and ultimately students will choose whether to mask up in classrooms.
Though almost all students and staff in those districts are allowed to unmask regardless of vaccination status, the Department of Secondary Education and Department of Public Health “strongly recommend” unvaccinated individuals keep masks on, the state noted in a memo announcing the end of the mask requirement.
Some school community members will likely continuing masking, even when and where it isn’t required, as seen in schools that reached the state’s 80 percent vaccination threshold and received waivers to remove masks.
Those who don’t choose to wear masks are being urged to respect the choice of those who do.
“I really want to encourage all of the parents in our district to encourage all their children to really, really be accepting of anybody’s choice to wear a mask or not wear a mask,” Danielle Tolley, a Monomoy school committee member, said at a meeting last week, echoing sentiments that have been repeated within other districts’ meetings and in the state’s guidance. “There will be folks who, for their own health, it is the best choice for them,” she added before the committee voted to remove the district’s mandate.
According to the latest science, masks can still offer some protection against COVID, even if others are maskless. The Centers for Disease Control recommends using a well-fitting N95 or KN95 face masks if possible to maximize protection against the virus. It also recommends high risk individuals wear masks in public.
Masks are still required on school buses and vans because of federal transportation rules, and anyone within school medical facilities, like nurses’ offices, will have to continue to wear masks. Masking may also be require for those who are exposed to infected individuals, per CDC guidance.
Some districts are still offering testing, including pooled and at-home testing for students and staff. (The state largely phased out its test-and-stay program, but some schools are still testing close contacts of those who test positive for COVID.) Less than 1 percent of students and staff at public schools tested positive for COVID during the state’s last reporting period, continuing on a downward trend since an all-time peak in January.
At several school committee meetings lifting the mask mandate, school leaders cautioned that if cases begin to raise again, they could reconsider putting them back in place. On the state level, DESE’s commissioner “will continue to monitor public health data, consult with medical experts and state health officials, and issue further guidance and/or requirements as needed,” according to a masking guidance memo.
Colleen Cronin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.