The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has given Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley the authority to mandate masks for all students and staff to start the school year.
On Tuesday, August 24, the board granted him that authority in a 9-1 vote, with member Paymon Rouhanifard being the lone dissenting vote.
The recommendation from Commissioner Riley marks a change in direction, as he had previously stated that while masks would be strongly encouraged for staff and students who have not received COVID-19 vaccinations, districts would be able to create their own policies.
The board’s vote gives the commissioner the authority to mandate face coverings for all students, educators and staff in kindergarten-grade 12 districts through October 1. The decision was made to “ensure schools fully reopen safely and to provide more time for students and educators to get vaccinated.”
After that date, middle and high schools would be able to remove the mask mandate provided that at least 80 percent of all staff and students are fully vaccinated. Even then, unvaccinated staff and students would be required to wear face coverings.
Exceptions will be made for students who cannot wear a mask for medical or behavioral reasons.
“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,” Commissioner Riley said.
State officials are hopeful that the mandate will encourage higher vaccination rates among eligible students and staff members.
During the meeting, Mr. Rouhanifard said that while masks are not his personal hill to die on, the decision made by the board would not be insignificant. His criticism of the mandate was that it is bad public policy with no clear end date for the younger students, especially since the vaccine has not yet been authorized for children under the age of 12.
“We have the responsibility to signal optimism that we are opening the door toward normalcy,” he said.
Mr. Rouhanifard said hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are currently low in the state and that children are at a statistically lower risk of hospitalization, which he said is a blessing.
In this case, he said that erring on the side of caution represents losing sight of things.
Fellow member Martin West said that he would be voting in favor of the measure, but not without some hesitation.
He questioned what the cost would be to young students who will not be able to see their teacher’s face for most of the day and why such measures are being implemented in schools when similar measures are not being taken in places populated by adults, who are more at-risk when it comes to the virus.
“In my view, schools should be the last places we impose such measures on,” he said. “Not the first.”
However, he said that he is reluctantly convinced that the public health data support what the commissioner has asked for.
In his support of the proposal, he did ask the commissioner to continue to engage with the board on the subject. He also asked that a clear end date be put in place when it comes to masking younger students.
Additionally, he expressed concern about what will happen in middle and high schools once the 80 percent vaccination threshold is met.
“On practical and ethical grounds, I’m not sure this approach works,” he said. “I’m not sure we want students to be in a position to explain why they are not vaccinated.”
He added that he did not want other students to feel the need to tattle on each other when they know a classmate is not masked while unvaccinated.
In support of the proposal, board member Matt Hills said that Commissioner Riley is not the type of leader who seeks power for the sake of power.
He said the commissioner has not shown that he favors imposing restrictions without purpose. During a public health situation, he said, he feels the commissioner should be able to have the flexibility to make decisions for the health and safety of school staff and students.
“I sure hope we have a smooth opening to the school year across the state and that one month from now we’re talking about having success in relaxing the mask mandate,” he said.
Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito expressed support for the initiative.
“Our goal remains to get as many people as possible vaccinated,” Lt. Gov. Polito said. “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.”
The mandate applies only to children over the age of 5 and only to indoor spaces. Students will be allowed to remove their masks while in outdoor situations, such as outdoor classrooms and recess.
Education Secretary James Peyser said the state has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country among the 12- to 15-year-old population, but the mandate is taking an extra step to ensure that all students and staff are protected from COVID-19.
Several of last year’s precautions are not being mandated this coming year, such as significant social distancing and the inability to share classroom materials. However, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said that handwashing and good personal hygiene will also mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms.
The Food and Drug Administration announced on Monday that it was granting full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for people over the age of 16, which is expected to instill more confidence in the vaccine. Pfizer is also projected to be the first vaccine available for emergency use among children between the ages of 5 and 11. That authorization could be granted as early as the end of September, or shortly thereafter.
In addition to the mask mandate, the state will offer screening and diagnostic testing at no cost to all public, private and parochial schools this year.
The mandate has the support of state Senator Susan Moran, one of 12 legislators who signed a letter demanding a statewide mask mandate. She has also cosponsored a bill known as “An Act mitigating COVID-19 transmission among children and families,” which would require masks for students and staff in all kindergarten-12 programs that are licensed by the state, as well as early childhood care for children over the age of 2. Similar to the state mandate, exceptions exist in the bill for those who are unable to wear a facial covering due to medical or behavioral issues.
The bill also allows parents and caregivers the ability to take paid time off from work in order to bring children to vaccination appointments and ensures that students who need to get vaccinated during school hours do not face attendance penalties.