A mask mandate for Massachusetts public schools went into effect Wednesday that requires nearly everyone to wear masks indoors at the schools through at least the beginning of October.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley issued the new regulations, which he was granted the authority to Tuesday, requiring all public school students age 5 and up, along with all staffers and visitors, to wear masks indoors while at school.
A poll last week found that school mask mandates are overwhelmingly popular - 81% of Massachusetts voters support it, while just 12% oppose it, according to the MassINC survey. The Massachusetts Teachers Association welcomed the mask requirement.
There are a few exceptions to the rules, however, which means not everyone on school grounds will need to wear masks, though the majority will. Children under 5, for example, are only recommended to wear masks, and masks aren't needed outdoors.
Anyone who has a medical reason is exempted from the mask requirement, along with students with behavioral issues that prevent them from wearing masks. Face shields may be an alternative.
The mask requirement doesn't apply when students and staff are eating, drinking or when they're taking "mask breaks," which may occur throughout the day. Those breaks are encouraged for when students are outdoors, like at recess, or when windows are open.
Students can remove their masks in elective classes where it's necessary to do so, like playing wind instruments such as the saxophone or trumpet, but districts are encouraged to include other ways to stop the spread of COVID, like adding physical distancing or using instrument masks.
Read the guidelines here:
Masks are also required for student-athletes and coaches when indoors this fall, under guidance issued Thursday from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Although students are responsible for bringing their own masks, disposable masks should be made available by the school for students who need them. By federal public health order, all students and staff are also required to wear masks on school buses.
The order from DESE leaves discipline for not following the mask mandate up to school districts.
"Districts should provide written notice to students and families about expectations and potential consequences, and are encouraged to use a progressive discipline approach," it says, adding later that it's "especially important" to encourage kids to keep connected with school after such a challenging 2020-21 year.
Riley may extend the mandate requirement past Oct. 1, the announcement said. And after Oct. 1, school districts with a vaccination rate of at least 80% will be able to allow vaccinated people to go maskless.
Dr. Eric Rubin, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine and a member of Newton's medical advisory board, said masking and routine COVID testing will be key to keeping kids safe at schools.
"You'd love to have kids 82 feet apart at all times," he said. "That's justnot possible in the school."
But there will still be risk -- for instance, at lunch.
"Kids can't stay in school all day and not have a meal, so trying to distance during meals is the best thing we can do," Rubin said.