State to end school mask mandate later this month

Feb 9, 2022

Dartmouth students will no longer be required by the state to mask-up come the end of the month.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley announced Wednesday, Feb. 9. that the statewide mask requirements for students in grades K-12 will be lifted Feb. 28.

The decision was made in consultation with infectious disease physicians, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and other medical experts, Riley said in a press release.

Masking will be a community choice in schools across the commonwealth, Riley said, regardless of vaccination rates within a school. A school district could establish a local requirement.

However, Superintendent of Dartmouth Public Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford said Wednesday that she supports DESE’s decision to lift the mandate.

“The announcement has been well received by my leadership team as it symbolizes another step toward normalcy,” she said. “Given the significant decrease in positive cases and the availability of vaccines I agree that it was time to eliminate the requirement and shine a light on our children's smiles.”

Masks will still be required on all school buses, per federal order.

The state reported 93 covid cases within all six of Dartmouth’s public schools between Jan. 20 and 26 — 87 students and six staff members.

One driver for the decision to remove the mask mandate, Riley said, was that Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates of young people and is a national leader in overall vaccination. In Massachusetts, 52%of all individuals who are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose, compared to 42 percent of the national population.

Riley described vaccination as “the best protection against Covid-19.’’

Massachusetts also has nation-leading school testing programs, Riley said, including a newly launched at-home testing program for students and educators. These testing options will remain in place.

Lifting the mask mandate will help provide students and staff with “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 Feb. 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 removal of the statewide mask requirement, school districts no longer need to request a waiver from DESE to remove masks in school buildings where 80% of staff and students are vaccinated.

Many schools across the Commonwealth have already reached the vaccination benchmark and requested permission to remove masks, Riley reported. To date, DESE has received 68 requests from schools that submitted proof 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,’’said Education Secretary James Peyser. “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.’’