By Joe Pohoryles
Boston University News Service
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education placed an extension on the statewide mask mandate in schools to go through at least Jan. 15, 2022.
The date moves back from Nov. 1, which had originally been pushed back from Oct. 15. Schools have the opportunity to end the mandate individually if 80% of students and staff are vaccinated.
The decision comes amidst the development and pending approval of a COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5-11. The DESE is closely monitoring the FDA and CDC recommendations for when the vaccine will be ready.
“This extension of the mask requirement will allow time for the elementary school population to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” Education Secretary James Peyser said in an Oct. 26 press release. “This will be another big step forward in our efforts to keep school safe for our kids.”
With the deadline being pushed back multiple times now, there is concern about stringing people along with no real end in sight, but Acton-Boxborough High School junior Emilie Rosecan believes the evolving research makes setting a strict mandate deadline nearly impossible.
“[The DESE] doesn’t know what’s gonna happen in the future. They don’t know if the [Delta] variant’s gonna get worse, or there’s gonna be more spread, so I don’t really think that it’d be fair of them to set a set deadline,” Rosecan said.
The current mask requirements will remain in place, including but not limited to wearing masks at all times except for eating and drinking, as well as visitors wearing masks regardless of vaccination status. DESE does not require masks to be worn outdoors.
“While COVID-19 is generally less serious for school-age children than for older adults, children can become infected, and some may get very sick or suffer serious complications. Children can spread COVID-19 to others,” Margaret R. Cooke, acting commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said in a letter to parents on Oct. 28.
While the development of the vaccine for ages 5-11 could impact the DESE decision to end the mask mandate, Rosecan believes the mandate should remain statewide regardless of vaccination rate.
“I think they should still keep the mandate out because it’s just safer, and with the variant, [it] just, like, spreads a lot quicker,” Rosecan said.
According to the Department of Education, there were 1,804 cases of COVID-19 among students tested between Oct. 14-20, the most recent data available, representing a dip of nearly 100 cases from the week prior (1,901).
Twelve researchers across Boston University, Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts-Boston were contacted for this story but declined to respond. DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley could also not be reached for comment for this story.