Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley plans to seek the authority to mandate masks for all public K-12 students, educators and staff through Oct. 1, officials said Friday.
Riley plans to ask the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to grant him the authority to mandate masks, an effort to give more students and educators time to get vaccinated as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, according to a statement from DESE. The mask mandate will only apply indoors and to children 5 and older.
“As students and staff prepare to return to school full-time, in-person, our priority is on a smooth reopening. With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall,” said Riley.
After Oct. 1, Riley’s policy would allow middle and high schools to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff only if the school meets a certain vaccination rate: at least 80% of students and staff in a school building being vaccinated.
Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks, the statement said.
“While Massachusetts leads the nation in vaccination rates, we are seeing a recent rise in COVID-19 cases because we still need more people to get vaccinated. This step will increase vaccinations among our students and school staff and ensure that we have a safe school reopening,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Vaccinations are the best way to keep everyone in the Commonwealth safe, and we will continue to work with school districts to offer vaccination clinics at schools across the Commonwealth.”
Earlier this summer, DESE had recommended unvaccinated students and staff wear masks in schools but did not say it would require face coverings. Final decisions on mask policies were left up to municipalities.
The mandate would include exemptions for students who cannot wear a mask because of medical conditions or behavioral needs, according to the statement.
Riley plans to revisit the mandate in the near future, officials said, and make revisions as warranted based on public health data.
Officials said the purpose of the policy is to encourage higher vaccination rates among school students and staff and to implement a uniform policy for all schools to begin the new academic year.
“Our goal remains to get as many people as possible vaccinated,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “We hope that by instituting vaccine benchmarks among school populations we will create a real incentive for students and staff to get vaccinated so they can remove their masks.”
Riley has asked the board to meet on Tuesday, Aug. 24, to vote to give him the authority to institute the mask mandate.
“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,” said Education Secretary James Peyser. “Instituting universal masking mandates to further encourage vaccination rates among everyone in our schools is one measure we can take now.”
After DESE’s previous recommendation, some districts across the state started announcing mask mandates for their schools.
A recent survey from MassINC Polling Group indicated that 81% of Massachusetts voters support mask mandates in schools.
DESE confirmed last week that the department this year does not plan to track and release data on COVID-19 cases in schools. Last academic year, DESE released a weekly report that indicated the number of students and staffers who had tested positive for COVID after being inside a school building.