BOSTON — The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education plans to meet Tuesday morning at 10 to authorize the commissioner of education to issue a mask mandate for public school students.
"In light of the current rise of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, I believe a mask mandate will be an important additional measure to keep students in school safely at this time," writes DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Rily in a memorandum to the board. "Masks remain a simple and effective mitigation measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A mandate will also provide more time for students and staff to get vaccinated, as we know vaccination remains the single most important tool in mitigating the impact of COVID-19."
Riley is requesting the action in light of the dramatic spike in positive cases of the novel coronavirus over the past three weeks. In the Berkshires, Berkshire Hills, Central Berkshire, North Adams, Mount Greylock and Pittsfield have already instituted mask mandates; McCann Technical, which only serves Grade 9-12, opted to follow the July 30 state guideline allowing vaccinated individuals not to mask.
The board can declare "exigent circumstances" exist under the Student Learning Time regulations that adversely affect student safety unless additional measures are in place.
"If the Board gives me this authority, having consulted with medical experts and public health officials, I will implement a mask mandate for all students and staff in all grades," Riley wrote.
The mandate would be in place until at least Oct. 1 before being reassessed. It would allow for certain exemptions. If by Oct. 1, 80 percent or more of all students and staff in a school are vaccinated, then the mask mandate could be lifted. That threshold has been agreed upon by the state Department of Public Health. This would apply only to vaccinated individuals; the unvaccinated would still have to wear masks. There is no vaccination dosage yet for children under age 12.
"The mask mandate will complement other measures we have put in place jointly with the Department of Public Health (DPH), including guidance for schools on hosting vaccination clinics and strongly encouraging districts and schools to maintain or establish a robust plan for COVID-19 testing in schools, including both diagnostic testing and surveillance screening for students and staff," wrote Riley.
Gov. Charlie Baker said on Friday, during a press conference on the approaching Tropical Storm Henri, that Massachusetts has the second best vaccination rate in the country behind Vermont (around 70 percent) and the second lowest hospitalization rate in the country. He expected "north of 100 clinics" for vaccinations were going to be happening for back to school.
"I think the commissioner felt this would give everybody sort of what I would describe as a common place to start the year, as well as some pretty heavy incentives for those who haven't gotten vaccinated to get vaccinated," he said. "I want to see more people get vaccinated to it's the really is the only way out of this."
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