DESE, DPH unveils new guidance on masks, vaccination clinics for MA schools

BOSTON — The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, jointly with the Department of Public Health, released guidance to recommend masking, COVID-19 testing, and quarantine protocols for this upcoming fall semester.

On Friday, DESE announced that all districts and schools will be required to be in-person, full-time, five days a week this fall. Also, as previously announced on May 27, all DESE health and safety requirements will be lifted for the fall.

For this upcoming season, DESE and DPH strongly recommend that students in kindergarten through grade six wear masks when indoors, except students who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs. Masks will not be necessary outdoors and may be removed while eating indoors.

DESE and DPH continue to announce that it strongly recommends unvaccinated staff in all grades, unvaccinated students in grades 7 and above, and unvaccinated visitors wear masks indoors.

It recommends that schools allow vaccinated students to remain unmasked. At this time, all students and staff are required to wear masks on school buses at this time per federal public health orders. Also, all staff and students must wear masks while in school health offices.

DESE added that any child or family who prefers to mask at school should be supported in this choice.

Lastly, those who are at a higher risk for severe disease from COVID or with a household member who is at high risk are encouraged to mask regardless of vaccination status.

In response to new guidance, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts released the following statement from President Beth Kontos:

“The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education needs to listen to health experts, including the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and require - not just recommend - universal mask wearing in K-6 schools this fall. If DESE continues to reject public health guidance and fails to act, local school committees need to step up and require universal mask wearing to keep us all safe and to maximize the likelihood of schools staying open this school year.

“We all want a safe and productive return to school in September, and with the surge of the incredibly contagious Delta variant and vaccine disinformation threatening the progress we’ve made against COVID, we need to use all the public health tools we have to stop the spread and keep schools open for in-person learning. Until we can get all school-aged kids vaccinated, basic public health precautions like masking are the bare minimum needed to keep our students and their vulnerable family members safe.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association also reacted to the recommendations Friday and released a statement on behalf of President Merrie Najimy:

“The guidance issued today by Governor Charlie Baker’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is no guidance at all. Rather than adopt a plan in line with the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, DESE is essentially signaling that students, educators and families should not take seriously the reality of the alarming rise in the number of cases of COVID-19.

“This is a reckless decision.

“But fortunately, there is time for DESE to correct its course. Educators’ unions are already leading in this fight — and the MTA calls on school districts to immediately exercise their authority and require universal masking to protect the health and safety of students, educators, and their local communities.

“Children too young to be vaccinated remain at unnecessary risk under DESE’s plan, as do communities where vaccination rates remain low. This especially applies to Massachusetts communities of color which, because of structural racism, have been harder hit and are experiencing worse outcomes from COVID 19. They need to be protected.

“As our schools reopen, DESE needs to be preparing for challenging conditions. It will be far easier to pull back restrictions if circumstances merit that step than to ramp them up should the coronavirus risk remain a substantial danger to families.

“The MTA strongly advocates for safe in-person learning. To ensure this can happen, we must employ the most stringent health and safety practices possible.

“In addition to requiring masking, the state and local districts must address the ongoing need to repair ventilation systems and monitor and maintain air quality in school buildings. Promoting vaccines, providing access to testing, and ensuring hygiene must remain top priorities.

“By failing to engage in meaningful dialogue with educators and other stakeholders, DESE is setting us up for another chaotic school year and increasing the likelihood that schools will again be forced to close. That needs to change — and it needs to change right now.

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