|DESE Board of Education Approves Universal Mask Mandate|
|10:43AM / Tuesday, August 24, 2021|
|DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley explains the change in COVID-19 data that lead to his request to institute a mask mandate to the Board of Education on Tuesday.|
BOSTON — Public school students will have to mask up this fall.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday morning found that "exigent circumstances" existed and authorized the implementation of a face-covering mandate.
DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley had requested the determination in the face of rising rates of new COVID-19 cases.
The Education Department had proffered guidelines that "strongly encouraged" unvaccinated staff and students to mask indoors in July, prior to the emergence of the much more transmissable Delta variant.
"We know that a return this fall to full-time, in person instruction is crucial," he said. "And after the challenges of last year, it will be incredibly important for this year to get off on a strong start."
In the Berkshires, Berkshire Hills, Central Berkshire, North Adams, Mount Greylock and Pittsfield have already instituted mask mandates; McCann Technical, which only serves Grade 9-12, opted to follow the July 30 state guideline allowing vaccinated individuals not to mask.
The mandate would be in place until at least Oct. 1 before being reassessed. It would allow for certain exemptions. If by Oct. 1, 80 percent or more of all students and staff in a school are vaccinated, then the mask mandate could be lifted. This would apply only to vaccinated individuals; the unvaccinated would still have to wear masks. There is no vaccination dosage yet for children under age 12.
"This does not mean that vaccinations will be the sole determinant for unmasking but if vaccinations were to increase among those eligible, especially now that the FDA has fully approved the Pfizer vaccine, that would be great," the commissioner said.
The meeting lasted less than a half-hour and only a few members spoke.
"Obviously circumstances may change in the coming weeks, which may allow us to take a different course as the commissioner said, but for now the safest and simplest path forward is to mask up in schools as we all work to meet or exceed the 80 percent vaccination benchmark," said Secretary of Education James Peyser.
Member Martin West noted that public venues for adults are not putting in such restrictive measures and that schools should be last places to do so.
However, the board has no control outside of the schools and it came down to whether "exigent circumstances exists that adversely affect the ability of students to safely, attend school," he said. "Based on the information that the commissioner has shared, based on the recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services, I'm reluctantly convinced that such exigent circumstances exist."
Member Paymon Rouhanifard was the only no vote on the measure, saying that "tying this masking proposal to vaccination rates is just frankly really bad public policy."
He felt that the "data goalposts" had been shifted, reminding the board that the state had one of the highest vaccination rates and low hospitalization rates, as well as low transmission in school settings.
"There's no clear off ramp," Rouhanifard said. "It was recently reported that the vaccine for children under the age of 12 will not be approved in 2021 ... I'm honestly, genuinely surprised that this is being endorsed by by our governor as an incentive for vaccination, because I consider our governor and his administration to be really smart about technocratic policy solutions."
Member Matt Hills thought it was a "straightforward vote" and evinced confidence in the leadership of the commissioner and state officials.
"It seems to be remarkable that we live in a state where not only we have an education commissioner, but elected leadership, the governor, legislative leaders have dealt with this whole pandemic for a year and a half in a fairly nonideological way and have been completely unafraid to change, to not be prisoners of whatever they might have said a few months earlier, or a year earlier," he said.
West said he did not think Riley would keep restrictions in place just for the sake of it.
"We have a public health situation that continues to evolve and he should have the flexibility, just like the governor should have the flexibility to deal with it appropriately," he said.
The vote to declare "exigent circumstances" as defined in the Student Learning Time regulations based on COVID-19 data was approved 8-1.