Baker Repeals School Mask Mandate for Better Learning

Baker+Repeals+School+Mask+Mandate+for+Better+Learning

David Min, Projects Editor

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley lifted the mask mandate in Massachusetts public schools on February 28. Additionally, the Department of Early Education and Care lifted their mask mandate placed on child care providers on February 28. Baker cited the low risk to children, effectiveness of Massachusetts’ response to COVID, and an urge to return to pre-pandemic times as reasons motivating his decision.

“Given the extremely low risk to young people, the widespread availability and the proven effectiveness of vaccines, and the distribution of accurate test protocols, and tests, it’s time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools,” Governor Baker said during a February 9 news conference. Commissioner Riley said lifting the mandate makes learning easier and more accessible to students in the classroom, including students whose first language is not English.

“During the past two years, the impact of COVID on children has caused a strain on their mental health, emotional well-being, and academic success,” he said on February 9. “We believe removing the mask requirement will make it easier for students to learn, particularly our young readers and students learning English as a second language.”

This decision followed similar announcements from other East Coast states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware, who also lifted or plan to lift their public school mask mandates in their public schools by the end of February and March. States like California are beginning to switch their approach—in California’s case, this includes preparing preventative measures, developing responses to potential rises in cases, and increasing the number of health workers and testing—and taking into account the possibility that the virus will last for the foreseeable future. California Governor Gavin Newsom designated COVID as an “endemic,” meaning that they will develop policies on the idea that COVID will be a lasting issue.

Massachusetts has one of the highest children vaccination rates in the country. For example, 20% of children aged five to 11 are vaccinated across the state while 82% of children aged 16 to 18 have gotten at least one vaccine shot. Recent data from the Department of Education reported COVID hospitalization and positive rates had reached their peak in January and are currently decreasing.

The Massachusetts mandate first came into place in August 2021 and was extended three times—their goal was to have at least 80% of students and teachers vaccinated before reconsidering the policy. The most recent extension was this past January, when Omicron spread throughout the state. This had come after Governor

Baker’s initial resistance to a K-12 mask mandate in schools. However, certain restrictions will remain in place, including mask wearing on school buses and when students test positive for COVID. COVID-positive students are required to quarantine at home for five days, then proceed to mask for the next five days in school.

Although the statewide mandate has been lifted, school districts have the option of instituting their own mask mandates and regulations if they wish. For example, Boston Public Schools plans on continuing their mask requirements for students and teachers. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu instated three conditions to lift the mandate: fewer than 200 COVID-related hospital daily cases; a COVID positivity rate less than 5%; and less than 95% occupied intensive care unit beds.

“The more that we all get vaccinated, the more that we get boosted and close these gaps, the faster all of these rates will come down and fall below the threshold—the faster that we get out of this pandemic,” Mayor Wu said. “This is what our public health officials have been saying this entire time.”

Cambridge Public Schools (CPS) intend to continue their masking policy following their February break.

“Looking ahead, we will align any chances with those the city makes. We are grateful to the city for consistently prioritizing the health and safety of its residents since the onset of the pandemic,” CPS Superintendent Victoria L. Greer wrote in her address to the CPS community on February 18.

What does this Massachusetts change mean for the school? Read on for community responses on the topic.

Sources: Boston.com, NBC, NBC Boston, NPR, Reuters, WBUR, WCVB 5, WHDH TV 7News.