Facing a likely uptick in COVID cases and other illnesses after winter break, Boston Public Schools is urging students and staff to wear masks in school when they return next week — but district leaders stopped short of making masking a mandate.
In a letter sent to families on Friday, Superintendent Mary Skipper said masking “is an ask and expectation of students and staff,” but is not a requirement. No one will be disciplined or sent home if they refuse, she said. The temporary masking will be in effect from Wednesday to Jan. 13 during the school day on school premises and school buses. The district will also provide disposable face masks to students or staff who need them.
“These efforts will help to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the flu, RSV, and other transmissible diseases within our schools,” Skipper said in a statement, noting the illnesses disproportionately affect Black and Brown families in Boston. “While this is not a mandate, we’re really leaning on everyone to work together to follow our temporary protocol to ensure we are collectively doing our part to mitigate the risk of exposure for our students and staff in an effort to keep everyone safe as best we can.”
The call for mask wearing comes after Boston schools saw an uptick in cases after Thanksgiving break. Since then, the number of cases the district reported nearly tripled before the winter break, to 341 from Dec. 15 to 21. The district is also trying to avoid a repeat of last January, when students and staff absences surged. BPS and other districts across the state grappled with staffing shortages largely resulting from COVID-related illnesses and scrambled to find enough substitutes to cover classrooms.
BPS Families for COVID Safety, parents who have urged the district to restore universal mask mandates and testing protocols for schools, on Friday expressed alarm that BPS isn’t mandating masks.
“This is an inequitable policy decision that leaves our children and the entire BPS community less protected in midst of the current surge when they return to school in January,” Suleika Soto, the group’s cofounder said in a statement. “COVID cases have soared. Virus in wastewater is increasing rapidly and is already at the highest levels we’ve seen since January 2022. And the tripledemic of COVID, flu, and RSV is still filling our hospitals.”
The number of positive COVID-19 tests in Boston has been higher than goals set by health officials (set for an average of 67.9 positive tests or less per day, or 10 cases per 100,000 residents), according to data from the city’s Public Health Commission, which continues to urge residents to get vaccinated as a protective measure.
A new coronavirus variant named XBB also became the dominant form of COVID-19 spreading in the Northeast, jumping from about 35 percent of cases during the week ending Dec. 17 to just over half last week, according to CDC data. Experts say the rapid spread of the XBB variant suggests it’s more adept than its predecessors at evading the immunity that comes from vaccines and infections.
The district provided iHealth Antigen Test Kits to students and staff. The letter asked for students to take the test before the school, either Tuesday evening or that Wednesday morning when students return, and for staff to take it on Monday before they need to return to work on Tuesday.
The Boston Teachers Union on Friday supported BPS’s decision on masking.
“Upon our initial review, we feel it is a sensible, data-driven policy that is responsive to both public health and also to specific populations for whom masking may be a hardship,” the union said in a statement. “We will be continuing to evaluate and review the policy and its implementation as it proceeds.”
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.