State extends school masking mandate

·3 min read

Sep. 27—BOSTON — Students attending public schools will be required to wear masks for at least another month, regardless of their vaccination status.

The mandate, which was approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by a 9-1 vote in August, requires public school students ages 5 and up, staff and educators to wear masks indoors through Oct. 1.

The date has now been extended to Nov. 1, state education officials said Monday.

After that, middle and high schools will be allowed to lift the rules for vaccinated students and staff if at least 80% are vaccinated. Unvaccinated students and staff will still be required to mask-up. The state also encourages children younger than 5 to wear masks.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the ongoing precaution is needed to prevent further spread of COVID-19, in light of rising case numbers attributed to the delta variant.

"The best interests of students and staff as they return safely to full-time, in-person instruction this fall is at the forefront of my decision," Riley said in a statement. "Wearing masks is an important additional measure to keep students in school safely at this time."

It's not clear how many schools will be able to reach the 80% target by next month. School committees in several communities — including Rockport, Manchester Essex Regional and Salem — had already said they plan to continue to require masks.

Gov. Charlie Baker recommended face coverings in schools this fall but initially left decisions about mandates to local school officials.

Under the state's masking rules, the vaccination rate is calculated on a school-by-school basis, not at the district level. It must include all enrolled students in addition to staff regularly providing in-school services.

Schools that already meet that threshold can submit data to the state by Oct. 15 for consideration, education officials said.

"We know some communities will want to submit verification quickly, and other communities might choose to continue their mask policies for now," Education Secretary Jim Peyser said. "This policy allows communities to make the decision at the local level."

The mandate includes exceptions for students who can't wear masks due to medical conditions or behavioral needs, officials said.

Local medical groups, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, support the continued mask mandate.

School districts last week reported 2,236 new COVID-19 infections among students and 318 cases among educators and staff, according to the state's weekly report.

Education officials point out that number is only a small fraction of the 920,000 students attending schools in person.

Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with more than 4.6 million people fully vaccinated, but children under 12 haven't been approved for the shots.

Federal health officials are considering approval to administer the vaccines to kids ages 5 through 11 but that might not happen until the end of the year.

Health officials are also scrambling to reach unvaccinated groups as infection rates spike with the prevalence of the highly contagious delta variant.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says even vaccinated people should return to wearing masks indoors in areas with surges in COVID-19 infections.

As of Monday all Massachusetts counties were listed as areas of "substantial" or "high" transmission.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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