The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote Tuesday to decide whether or not to require masking in schools just a week before the first South Shore classes are set to resume. State officials initially said mask policies would be left up to local authorities, but the state’s education commissioner now wants to mandate that students ages 5 and older, staff and educators in public K-12 schools wear masks indoors through Oct. 1.
After that, the policy Commissioner Jeff Riley is pursuing would allow middle and high schools to lift their mask mandates for vaccinated students and staff, but only if at least 80 percent of students and staff in that school building are vaccinated. Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks.
The Baker administration has been recommending, but not requiring, that unvaccinated people — including younger students not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines — wear masks in schools, leaving the exact policies to local officials who Gov. Charlie Baker has said are best-suited to make calls for their communities. The Massachusetts Medical Society has been among the groups recommending universal masking in schools.
Local school departments have already started making their own masking rules after being told the decision would be left up to them. Quincy and Weymouth last week decided they would continue to require them, while Rockland said masks would be optional for students.
In Hanover, families planned to protest a mask mandate ahead of a Tuesday night school committee meeting to decide the district’s policy. That meeting, and the protest, has been pushed pending the Tuesday vote by he Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state’s shift in approach comes soon after Baker mandated that workers in the state’s executive branch be fully vaccinated by mid-October.
State education officials described the move as a way “to ensure schools fully reopen safely and to provide time for more students and educators to get vaccinated,” and said that Riley would “revisit the mandate in the near future to revise it as warranted by public health data.”
“The vaccination rates among young people in Massachusetts are among the highest in the nation, with 65 percent of 12-15-year-olds vaccinated, but we still need to do more to make sure our young people and educators are protected from COVID-19,” Education Secretary James Peyser said. “Instituting universal masking mandates to further encourage vaccination rates among everyone in our schools is one measure we can take now.”
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