Massachusetts' K-12 public school mask mandate has been extended through February, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced Monday.
The move comes as Massachusetts is in the middle of a major coronavirus surge.
The mandate had previously been set to expire on Friday, Jan. 15.
Education officials say masking, testing and vaccinations have made school environments safe, and Riley had planned last month to make a call on whether to lift or extend the mask mandate but decided to wait.
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More on the MA Mask Mandate
"With the new arrival of omicron, it seems too soon to make a decision at this time," Riley said Dec. 17. "The medical community's asked for some additional time so that we have better facts on the ground. They're learning a lot very quickly about the omicron variant. We'll wait and see, and see what the situation looks like in early January for a decision."
Since then, COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations have exploded across Massachusetts. Schools have stayed open for the most part, although districts coming out of the holiday break are seeing more virus-related absences that have sidelined students, teachers and the other support staff necessary to school functions.
In October, when Riley last extended the mask mandate, state education officials reported 1,804 COVID-19 cases among students during the week of Oct. 14 through Oct. 20, and 350 among staff. In the most recent report, covering the weeks between Dec. 23 and Jan. 5, 38,887 students tested positive for coronavirus, as well as 12,213 staff members.
Over that period, the weekly average of student cases was 19,443.5, more than double the prior report; the weekly average of employee cases, 6,106.5, nearly quadruple that from the previous report.
In the face of rising infections and an updated mask advisory from state public health officials, education officials have stood by their rule that allows the mask mandate to be lifted, at the discretion of local officials, at middle and high schools with 80% of their students and staff vaccinated.
More than 30 schools have had waivers approved to lift the mask mandate.
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