MA education officials to vote on mask mandate in schools

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will meet Tuesday morning to vote on whether to give Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to implement a mask mandate across the state’s public schools. Riley has proposed requiring all school staff and students, kindergarten through grade 12, to wear masks indoors when returning to school in the fall at least through Oct. 1.

The policy would apply to children who are five years old or older.

After Oct. 1, the mandate would be lifted for middle and high school students who are vaccinated but only if at least 80% of students and staff have been vaccinated in their building. Unvaccinated students would still have to wear masks.

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Exceptions include students who cannot wear masks due to medical conditions or behavioral needs.

“As students and staff prepare to return to school full-time, in-person, our priority is on a smooth reopening,” Riley said in a statement. “With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall.”

If the mandate is implemented, Riley will revisit it “in the near future,” according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE], and “revise it as warranted by public health data.”

Initially unwilling to take a stance on the issue in schools, MA Gov. Charlie Baker finally got behind the mask mandate last week, saying it will incentivize eligible kids – ages 12 and over – to get vaccinated as the Delta variant spreads.

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“I think the decision that [Riley] is making, which is basically designed to ensure as clean an opening as you can possibly have to deal with any anxiety people may have as they return to school and to create some serious incentives for middle and high school kids to get vaccinated, is an appropriate response,” Baker said in a news conference.

Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates in the country, but the Delta variant has led to a spike in COVID-19 cases, officials said. The mask mandate topic is hotly debated among families.

“I actually have two kids in high school. They are vaccinated, but I still agree with it,” said Dedham mother Judi Saint-Amour. “With this Delta variant, I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty. And I think with the mandate, it takes a lot of stigma away from kids who feel they want to [wear a mask] but would feel funny about it.”

Joe Perkins, however, said kids should “absolutely not” be required to wear masks to school.

“I think it does more harm than good,” Perkins said. “Not being able to breathe, it’s hot, it’s just uncomfortable.”

The board will meet remotely at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. DESE’s office are in Malden. Boston 25 News spoke with Malden’s mayor ahead of the vote.

“Our philosophy in the city of Malden (has been), better to be safe than sorry,” said Mayor Gary Christenson. “What we have seen is that the Delta variant is two-and-a-half times more contagious, and it’s really going after those who are unvaccinated. And a vast majority of our school population is unvaccinated.”

Malden Police Chief Kevin Molis told Boston 25 News he anticipates a protest to begin outside of DESE offices at 9 a.m.

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