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Students and school staff in Massachusetts will be starting the year in masks, marking a change of direction from Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley.

Commissioner Riley 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. However, a press release dated Friday, August 20, reversed that stance.

The commissioner asked the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to give him the authority to mandate face coverings for all students, educators, and staff in K-12 districts through October 1. Authority was granted in a 9-1 vote taken during the board's meeting on Tuesday, August 24.

The commissioner's decision was made to "ensure schools fully reopen safely and to provide more time for students and educators to get vaccinated."

After October 1, 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 this mandate will encourage higher vaccination rates among eligible students and staff members.

Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. and Lieutenant Karyn Polito expressed support for the initiative, as well.

"Our goal remains to get as many people as possible vaccinated," said Lt. Gov. 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."

This mandate only applies to children over the age of 5 and only to indoor spaces. Students will still be able to remove their masks while in outdoor situations such as outdoor classrooms and recess.

Education Secretary James Peyser said that 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 hand-washing and good personal hygiene will also mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms.

The Food and Drug Administration announced on Monday, August 23, 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 Senator Susan Moran, who was one of 12 legislators to have 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 K-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.

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