Baker Says No Plans To Change Mask Guidance for Schools

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday his administration has no plans to reinstate a mask mandate for schools this fall, one day after a dozen lawmakers urged him to revive the policy in early education and elementary school settings amid the spread of the more infectious Delta variant of COVID-19.

In a letter to the governor on Wednesday, the representatives and senators noted that children under 12 years old remain ineligible for any of the three approved COVID-19 vaccines and that "case counts are increasing here in Massachusetts and nationwide."

"With physical distance requirements for the upcoming academic year already lifted and vaccination wholly unavailable to children in EEC programs and grades K-6, masks constitute one of our most important remaining COVID mitigation measures," the lawmakers, all Democrats, wrote, according to a copy of the letter tweeted out by Sen. Becca Rausch.

They argued that the masking requirement should apply to students as well as staff through sixth grade "because young children need the adults around them to model masking behavior; because universal masking creates consistent messaging, expectations, enforcement, and compliance; and to protect all people in EEC programs and K-6 elementary schools, as well as their families, particularly those who are immunocompromised."

Themost recent guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education encourages, but does not require, masking during summer school. DESE's current guidance indicates all health and safety recommendations will be lifted for the 2021-2022 school year.

A spokesperson for the department could not be reached immediately Thursday morning. The Telegram & Gazette reported Wednesday, though, that Commissioner Jeffrey Riley told several central Massachusetts superintendents that further guidance will be released in the coming weeks.

Amid the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, health experts have begun more vocally recommending that at least younger students wear masks in the classroom this fall. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control's K-12 guidance, updated July 9, suggests that everyone who is not fully vaccinated ages 2 and older should wear masks indoors and that schools should maintain at least three feet of distance between students within classrooms.

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that everyone older than 2 years old -- regardless of vaccination status -- wear masks at school in the upcoming academic year, noting that "a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines."

Facing questions about the rising case count in Massachusetts, Baker last week urged residents to wear masks indoors when they are unsure about the vaccination status of others.

On Thursday, during a grant announcement event in Sandwich, Baker said his administration does not intend to update its mask policies, either broadly or specifically for schools.

"We don't have plans to change our current policies with respect to school in the fall," he said, noting that the severity of current COVID-19 spread varies by state. "I think what's got to be the rule of thumb here is that people make decisions based on the current state of play with respect to the virus in their states, and we're in a very different place than most other parts of the country."

COVID-19 cases have been rising in Massachusetts over the past three weeks. On Wednesday, the Department of Public Health reported 457 newly confirmed infections, the most in a single day since May 20.

The 2,045 confirmed cases in the past seven days is more than twice as many as the 989 tracked in the prior seven-day period. Tuesday's seven-day daily average of new confirmed cases, 244.7, is nearly four times as high as the record low of 64.3 observed June 23.

Most people who are eligible for the vaccine have received it, but a significant segment of the population in Massachusetts - about 18 percent of those ages 12 and older - still have not received a single dose, according to CDC data, meaning that more than 1 million Bay Staters who are eligible have not been partially vaccinated.

While cases and the positive test rate are creeping up, the figures are still far below peaks observed during the public health crisis, and hospitalizations and deaths have remained relatively flat.

An outbreak in Provincetown reached 256 confirmed cases by the end of the day Tuesday, town officials said, prompting renewed calls for wearing masks, particularly indoors, and getting tested for COVID-19 after possible exposure.

The letter was signed by Sens. Rausch of Needham, Sal DiDomenico of Everett, Pat Jehlen of Somerville, Susan Moran of Falmouth, and Reps. Ruth Balser of Newton, Russell Holmes of Boston, Vanna Howard of Lowell, Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton, Natalie Higgins of Leominster, Steve Owens of Watertown, Peter Capano of Lynn, and Tami Gouveia of Acton.

By Chris Lisinski/SHNS

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