BOSTON (WPRI) — The statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools in Massachusetts will be lifted on Feb. 28, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced Wednesday.
“The decision was made in consultation with infectious disease physicians, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and other medical experts,” the department said in a statement.
The move is one Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy says is “the wrong time” for Massachusetts students, teachers and staff.
“Doing it on the day that students return from winter break is really throwing caution to the wind. We have enough experience to be able to predict that when students come back from a vacation, there’s often an upsurge in the virus,” Najimy said.
In a formal announcement Wednesday morning, Gov. Charlie Baker said the decision stemmed from the state being a national leader in vaccinating kids and having a strong testing system in place.
“COVID, like many other respiratory diseases that we are familiar with, will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Baker noted. “Thankfully, the advances in vaccines, treatments and testing are mitigating the harm that’s caused by COVID.”
DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Massachusetts is second in the nation among states with the greatest uptick of vaccinations in the 5-11 year-old group, and 82% of Massachusetts 16-19 year-olds have at least one shot.
“Vaccination rates and COVID rates vary dramatically from community to community, and the vaccination rates at our lowest in communities of color with low income backgrounds, and COVID rates are highest there,” Najimy said.
“So, these are the families who will continue to bear the highest social costs of irresponsible policies of our governor. He speaks in terms of averages, and that doesn’t actually show the reality in every community,” she added.
Riley said the impact COVID has had on children has caused a strain on their “mental health, emotional well being and academic success.” but Najimy doesn’t fully agree.
“In reality educators are highly attuned to the mental health needs of their students in a way that the Commissioner and the Governor are not,” Najimy told 12 News.
The Department of Early Education and Care is also lifting the mask mandate for all licensed child care providers on Feb. 28. More information for those programs is expected to be provided next week.
Students will still have to wear masks on school buses because that is a federal order.
“We are relieved to now be in a place where we can provide young people additional relief from COVID-19 restrictions so they can continue to move towards normalcy in the classroom,” Riley said.
With lifting the statewide mask requirement, districts no longer need to request a waiver from DESE to remove masks in school buildings where 80% of students and staff are vaccinated.
Forty-two public schools have already been given the approval to lift their mandate, according to DESE, and the department said they’re in the process of reviewing another 21 requests.
While masks become optional at the end of the month at the statewide level, the DESE said school districts can still establish a local requirement.
“We understand many students will continue to wear a mask going forward for a number of reasons, and we fully support those individual decisions and we would urge everyone in K-12 education to do the same,” Baker said. “We want to help schools make kids who make that decision feel comfortable doing so.”
The governors of Connecticut and three other states announced Monday they are setting end dates for for school mask mandates over the coming weeks. Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee said the state will remove its indoor vax-or-mask mandate later this week and end the mask mandate for schools next month
Testing programs at public and private schools in Massachusetts will remain in place and the state will continue to encourage vaccinations by hosting clinics at any school that wants to hold one.
Students and staff individually identified as asymptomatic close contacts and repeatedly tested in school through Test and Stay test negative more than 90% of the time, according to the DESE.
As of Jan. 9, 503,312 Test and Stay tests had been conducted in the Bay State, with 496,440 of them being negative.
Riley said that for any student who tests positive, the DESE strongly suggests they follow their protocol, which includes wearing a mask for an additional five days.
For student-athletes, Riley said the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is not overseen by DESE and they will be making a statement about masks in the future about what’s going to happen.
“We believe that removing the mask requirement will make it easier for students to learn,” Riley added.