Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley announced today the statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools will be lifted on February 28. At that time, DESE and the Department of Public Health recommend students and faculty wear masks in certain scenarios consistent with DESE’s COVID protocols.
The decision was made in consultation with infectious disease physicians, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and other medical experts. Vaccinations are the best protection against COVID-19, and Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates of young people and is a national leader in overall vaccination. In Massachusetts, 52 percent of all individuals who are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose, compared to 42 percent of the national population.
Massachusetts also has nation-leading school testing programs, including a newly launched at-home testing program for students and educators. These testing options will remain in place.
“With Massachusetts a national leader in vaccinating kids, combined with our robust testing programs, it is time to lift the mask mandate in schools and give students and staff a sense of normalcy after dealing with enormous challenges over the past two years,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “We have all the tools to keep schools safe as we move into dealing with the next phase of managing COVID.”
“Schools are safe environments, most children now have had access to vaccinations that greatly reduce the risk for severe disease for several months, and thousands of families across the Commonwealth have taken this opportunity to protect their children,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. “This is the right time to lift the mask mandate, and we will continue to encourage vaccination and host clinics at any school that wants to hold one to further protect their students from COVID.”
The Department of Early Education and Care will also lift the mask requirements currently in place for all licensed child care providers effective February 28, and allow programs to develop policies specific to the children they serve. The Department of Early Education and Care will release additional guidance for programs next week.
With the lifting of the statewide mask requirement, school districts no longer need to request a waiver from DESE to remove masks in school buildings where 80 percent of staff and students are vaccinated. Masking will be a community choice in schools across the Commonwealth, regardless of vaccination rates within a school; however, a school district could establish a local requirement. Many schools across the Commonwealth have already reached the vaccination benchmark and requested permission to remove masks. To date, DESE has received 68 requests from schools that submitted attestations that 80 percent of their students and staff are vaccinated. The Department has approved 42 requests and is in the process of reviewing another 21 requests before the statewide requirement ends.
“In a state with one of the highest vaccine acceptance rates in the country, and the state with the second highest vaccination rates among 5- to 11-year-olds, we must navigate the careful transition into opening up our society while simultaneously employing public health mitigation strategies. We are moving from mask requirement to mask optional, and we want school districts to move along with the state by making it optional, while still creating supportive environments for students and staff who choose to wear a mask,” said Education Secretary James Peyser.
Several other states, including Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, have rescinded their school mask requirements in recent days.
The state’s nation-leading, robust school testing programs will remain in place. Last month, DESE and DPH launched updated school COVID-19 testing options, including providing participating teachers and staff with at-home rapid tests weekly, to optimize in-person learning. The two departments also released updated data on the pooled testing and Test and Stay programs, showing very few positive cases and low transmission rates.
With more than 2,000 public and private schools in the Commonwealth participating in COVID-19 testing, DESE and DPH have gathered robust data about the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools that clearly illustrates schools are safe environments for teaching and learning. Schools are one of the few types of settings in the state where individuals are tested on a regular basis.
Data collected over the past few months from the Test and Stay program is compelling around what it reveals about school safety. Students and staff individually identified as asymptomatic close contacts and repeatedly tested in school through Test and Stay test negative more than 90 percent of the time. As of January 9, 503,312 Test and Stay tests had been conducted; 496,440 of them were negative (almost 99 percent).
“During the past two years, the impact of COVID-19 on children has caused a strain on their mental health, emotional well-being and academic success. We are relieved to now be in a place where we can provide young people additional relief from COVID-19 restrictions so they can continue to return to normalcy in the classroom,” said Commissioner Riley.
Masking continues to be required on all school buses, per federal order.
In August, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave the commissioner the authority to require masks for public school staff and students (ages 5 and above) in all grades through at least October 1, 2021. The commissioner used his authority to extend the requirement three times.