Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is lifting the state's mask mandate at the end of the month, citing student's mental health, vaccination rates and other accessible tools to deal with the pandemic.
"Our kids have had to put up with a lot of disruption, a lot of time alone, and has suffered a real learning loss over the past two years. There's no debating those points, no matter where you stand," Baker said. "From free and convenient testing to highly effective vaccines and breakthrough treatments, everyone now has the tools and the knowledge to stay safe with respect to COVID."
Baker, Education Secretary James Peyser and Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said the current statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools will not be extended past Feb. 28. It has been extended three times since August. The order also applies to all licensed child care providers.
READ THE ANNOUNCEMENT: Massachusetts Lifts School Mask Mandate
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"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," Riley said. "We are relieved to now be in a place where we can provide young people additional relief from COVID 19 restrictions, so they can continue to move towards normalcy in the classroom."
In place of the statewide mandate, DESE will recommend that masks continue to feature in certain scenarios. Baker said the Department of Early Education and Care will also update its guidance to reflect a similar change. School districts can still choose to establish their own local requirements, and Baker said the administration will "fully support" individuals who choose to mask up once the mandate lifts.
"While masking is no longer a statewide requirement, we ask all school leaders and students to make sure they respect all individual choices around mask wearing," Riley said. "Please make sure to create a supportive environment that respects everyone's choice to do what is most appropriate and comfortable for them."
Baker recently hinted at a change in the state's school mask policy as nearby states lift them. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has said he will not extend the school mask mandate there past Feb. 28. The governors of both New Jersey and Delaware have announced their respective school mask mandates will be lifted in March, as well.
"All schools now have access to testing resources that were never before imagined. And every school aged kid and their family has had ample opportunity at this point to get vaccinated," Baker said. "And we know from all of our surveillance testing through our test and state program, that school settings are very rarely sources of COVID transmission."
Massachusetts ranked second in the nation for the highest share of fully vaccinated children, including the greatest uptake of vaccination rates in the five to 11 year old group, Baker noted. About 82% of 16 to 19 year-olds have received at least one shot, Riley said.
"Given the extremely low risk for 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," Baker said. "COVID, like many other respiratory diseases that we're familiar with, will be with us for the foreseeable future."
Officials noted that they are able to change course should that become necessary, but based on the current circumstances, they said a mandate is no longer needed. People are encouraged to wear masks if that is their personal preference.
Boston doctors are split on whether masks should continue to be required in Massachusetts schools. During NBC10 Boston's weekly "COVID Q&A" series Tuesday, Dr. Shira Doron, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said it's time to lift the mask mandate, while Boston Medical Center's Dr. Sabrina Assoumou and Brigham and Women's Hospital's Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes cautioned that it's still too soon.
Massachusetts parents, too, are torn over whether students and staff should be required to wear masks.
“If students and teachers want to mask, that’s fine, but everyone should have a choice," Needham parent Melissa Bello said.
“If the mask requirement were taken away plus no remote option, it really puts families in a difficult situation," Boston parent Sarah Horsley said.
After nearly half a year with the mandate in place, wearing masks seems to be the new normal for Sommerville resident Will Mbah's two children.
"It's just part of their daily lives that they don't even think about it," said Mbah.
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Paymon Rouhanifard believes masking has come at a learning cost for his 4-year-old daughter. As the sole member to vote against the mandate last summer, he's glad it will soon be over.
"There's not a need to force masks to be worn across all schools, across all students, given one-way protection works between the vaccine and the fact that it's optional to wear masks," he said.
With masking being left to each community, experts say mandates should be used as a tool depending on factors like local vaccination rates.
"If community transmission is lower and we're at a place where the health care system can absorb it, you know, easing mask wearing might be better," said MassGeneral Hospital for Children Pediatric Infectious Disease Director Vandana Madhavan.
Boston resident Kristin Wallace will feel compelled to pull her immunosuppressed daughter out of the classroom if her school decides to not adopt a mask mandate.
"Just being able to have her go to school is one of our small bits of normalcy, because everyone is masked and we know that they are very safe there," she said. "I feel like taking away that mask, would take away that last bit of being able to do something with other kids."
State House News Service contributed to this report.