Mass. Schools Get Mask Mandate, Effective Immediately

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's new mandate, which lasts through at least Oct. 1

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After receiving authorization on Tuesday, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday authorized a mask mandate for students through the beginning of October.

Effective immediately, students in public schools age 5 and older, as well as all public school staff and visitors, must wear masks indoors through at least Oct. 1, under Commissioner Jeffrey Riley's new order. Children under 5 are also recommended to wear masks.

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.

Masks are expected to be required in Massachusetts schools through at least Oct. 1.

The mask requirement doesn't apply when students and staff are eating, drinking or when they're takin "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.

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.

He had said Tuesday that he hopes this will be a short-term measure as the department continues to work with the health and medical community on "off-ramps for masking."

Meeting virtually, the DESE board voted 9-1 Tuesday to give Riley the power to issue a mask mandate for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"For now, the safest and simplest path forward is to mask up in schools," Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said.

The board's vote -- a shift from Gov. Charlie Baker administration's previous approach of recommending masks for unvaccinated individuals in schools but allowing individual districts to adopt their own policies -- comes after dozens of school committees, boards of health and other local officials across the state had already decided to require masks in their schools.

Under the mask mandate, if a school has a vaccination rate of 80% or more come Oct. 1, the district could lift masks for those who are vaccinated.

A mask mandate has already been issued in Revere, where all 11 schools in the city have opened their doors for the first time since March 2020.

In addition to the classroom, Revere's mask mandate stretches to school buses.

The district said it has also taken several steps keeping safety in mind, including hiring health aids to help with COVID protocols and contact tracing. The district has also hired additional nurses and will conduct weekly pooled testing to identify any possible cases quickly.

Revere will also host a series of vaccination clinics for families.

Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, which previously had emergency use authorization, has been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, a move expected to impact vaccination mandates and when younger children can be vaccinated.
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