BOSTON — Massachusetts is poised to start its third pandemic-influenced academic year with a mask mandate in place across K-12 schools, after a 9-1 vote Tuesday by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the mandate he plans to impose will require all students and staff to wear masks indoors through Oct. 1. After that date, Riley said, his department will “begin to look for offramps on masking in schools.”
“I want to be clear that we are hopeful that this will be a short-term measure, and we continue to work with the health and medical community on off-ramps for masking,” Riley said ahead of the vote.
He said he could not rule out the possibility that masks “may be required intermittently throughout the year” based on the path the virus takes.
Under Riley’s plan, starting in October, middle and high schools where at least 80% of students and staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19 would be able to lift the mask requirement, for vaccinated individuals only. The mandate will apply to students age 5 and up, and education officials have said it will include exceptions for students who cannot wear masks because of medical conditions or behavioral needs.
Education Secretary James Peyser said the policy would both ensure “that we have a smooth opening of school without any confusion or ambiguity about the health protocols that everyone is expected to follow” and “reinforce the importance of vaccinations.”
“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% vaccination benchmark that we’re talking about,” Peyser said.
While it’s unclear how school district officials will gather the information, Riley told board members in a memo that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would provide schools with an attestation form they could submit to demonstrate they met the 80% threshold.
A shift from the Baker administration’s previous approach, the board’s vote 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, often following lengthy debates at the local level.
Over the past month, more than 100 districts have put policies in place requiring universal masking when school starts, according to a list compiled by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. With a combined enrollment of about 454,000, those districts serve half the state’s students.