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Northampton reinstates school mask mandate following increase in COVID-19 cases

Northampton district leaders announced they are reinstating a mask mandate in schools after last week's surge in coronavirus cases.Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg/file

Following an uptick in coronavirus cases last week, Northampton district leaders are reinstating a mask mandate in schools.

Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost said the number of cases reported to schools or detected through the district’s pooled testing program more than doubled from 64 to 139 in a three-day period from last Wednesday to Friday, The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported.

Northampton was one of few school districts to continue requiring masks in schools after Governor Charlie Baker lifted the statewide mandate in February. The Northampton School Committee voted to make indoor masks optional “in most situations” a month later at the end of March.

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But after the recent rise in cases, the Superintendent’s Health Advisory Committee had an emergency meeting on Monday that followed with Provost reinstating the mandate through May 20, or longer if deemed necessary.

Chelsea Public Schools also kept masks in place after the statewide mandate was lifted. The school committee voted in April to lift its mandate on May 9, but before the new rules went into effect, Superintendent Almi G. Abeyta announced Friday that masks will continue to be required in schools until further notice.

“When that vote occurred, COVID-19 rates were lower than they are right now,” Abeyta wrote. “As of today, the CDC has identified the Suffolk County COVID-19 community level as ‘High’, which includes a recommendation to wear masks indoors. Therefore, we will continue with our mask requirement and other COVID-19 protocols in our schools.”

Arlington, Belmont, and Cambridge Public Schools earlier this week also recommended that students wear masks indoors, following the CDC’s classification of Middlesex County as having a high level of COVID-19 transmission. Some districts, including Boston Public Schools, never lifted their mask mandates.

For seven consecutive reporting weeks, there’s been an uptick in coronavirus cases among Massachusetts students and staff. Last week, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported 8,079 new cases students and 2,636 among staff for the week that ended May 5.

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DESE said its guidance for masks in schools will continue to be what the department outlined in recommendations released Feb. 9, which is to leave it to individual districts whether to continue requiring them.

Teacher’s unions in the state called the recent rise in school cases concerning and suggested schools return to having students wear masks in classrooms.

“AFT MA believes that we may need to return to masking in our classrooms to keep everyone safe,” said Beth Kontos, president of the AFT Massachusetts chapter. “There has been such a sharp rise of infections among our students and staff recently. We believe the mask mandate should be determined by the infection rates in a community.”

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said MTA is supporting local educator unions on how to manage mask requirements by helping look at CDC guidelines and mitigation strategies MTA has been recommending from the beginning.

She added the state should start looking at the cycle of the year where trends suggest schools should potentially “go back to masking for a short period of time.”

“Our concern with the rise of COVID cases is that the rise in cases after school vacation has actually been a trend from the very beginning of COVID, and this is what we’ve been cautioning about since this past January when the board of education voted to remove the mask mandate,” Najimy said.

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Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.