August 20, 2021 By Carol Britton Meyer (Unsplash Photo)
Following hours of Hingham School Committee discussions and input from many parents and others regarding setting a face mask policy for the new school year, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education issued a press release today (Aug. 20) regarding Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley’s intent to ask the Massachusetts Board of Education to grant him the authority to mandate masks for all K-12 public schools students, educators, and staff until at least Oct. 1 in order to provide time to increase the vaccination rate in the schools.
Up until Thursday, decisions related to health and safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools have been left to individual communities based on local data, according to an earlier joint DESE and Massachusetts Department of Public Health notice.
This news followed a lengthy School Committee meeting this week during which recommendations from the newly-formed COVID Health and Education Task Force were considered, along with a draft School Committee policy.
The intent was for the School Committee to take a vote on a face mask policy for Hingham Public Schools next Monday, Aug. 23.
The Massachusetts Board of Education meeting is set to take place on Tuesday, Aug. 24, at which time Riley will ask the board to grant him the authority to institute a statewide mask mandate.
Supt. of Schools Gary Maestas told the Hingham Anchor that he expects there would be a good level of interest at Monday's School Committee meeting related to the face mask policy issue. "If there is a vote on the policy that night, one will be available as needed," he said.
Maestas believes that Riley's proposed mandate "is in line with the trajectory of where the School Committee is going," he said. "The big thing we have to grapple with is that although a higher vaccination rate [is the goal set by Riley], only a certain population of our school-attending children are eligible to get a vaccination right now."
That said, if Riley gets his wish, such a mandate "would add a level of [short-term]certainty, and then we would have the remainder of the school year to discover [what the next steps should be]," Maestas said.
As students and staff prepare to return to school full-time, in-person, Riley stated recently, "Our priority is on a smooth reopening. With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall."
After October 1, the commissioner’s policy -- if approved -- would allow middle and high schools to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff only if the school meets a certain vaccination rate – at least 80 percent of students and staff in a school building are vaccinated. Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear face masks.
"These metrics will help determine if we stay in Oct. 1 mode or transition to something else," Maestas said. "There's a lot of opinion and motivation to look at the science and a lot of different factors to determine whether we should require face masks."
School officials are monitoring Hingham's vaccination and COVID infection rate carefully, according to Maestas. "A concern right now is for the unvaccinated. I think we need some data on the people who have been vaccinated and are getting COVID and see how that has impacted their lives."
The mask mandate would only apply indoors and to children ages 5 and older and would include exceptions for students who cannot wear a mask due to medical conditions or behavioral needs.
Riley will revisit any such mandate for possible revision as warranted by public health data.
“Our goal remains to get as many people as possible vaccinated,” Lt. Governor Karyn Polito said recently. “We hope that by instituting vaccine benchmarks among school populations, we will create a real incentive for students and staff to get vaccinated so they can remove their masks.”
Maestas thinks the Oct. 1 mandate may help school officials understand the data better, "but we will still have a lot of work to do once things start taking shape."
Clink on the link below to access the full DESE press release: