State Education Board Gives Riley Authority to Require Masks for K-12 School Opening

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley Feb. 26 at Nock-Molin Middle School in Newburyport. (Nicolaus Czarnecki/Boston Herald/Pool photograph.)

By a 9-1 vote this morning, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley the authority to mandate masks in K-12 schools for the start of the third academic year influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Riley has said the mandate he plans to impose will require all students and staff wear masks indoors through Oct. 1. After that date, under his plan, middle and high schools where at least 80% of staff and students are vaccinated would be able to lift the mask mandate, but only for vaccinated individuals.

“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.

The board’s vote—a shift from the Baker administration’s previous approach of recommending masks for unvaccinated individuals in schools but allowing individual districts to adopt their own policies—comes after dozens of school committees, including Haverhill; boards of health; and other local officials across the state had already decided to require masks in their schools.

Education Secretary James Peyser said the policy would both permit a smooth reopening of school “without any confusion or ambiguity about the health protocols that everyone is expected to follow,” and reinforce the importance of vaccination. Board member Paymon Rouhanifard, who voted no, said it was “just, frankly, really bad public policy” to tie the proposal to vaccination rates, and said he thinks linking it to community spread would have been a “more reasonable” alternative. “I'm old enough to remember how this all started,” he said. “When this all started, it was about flattening the curve, and the curve, you may recall, was about hospitalization rate and count, and all of a sudden, we’re now focused on case count, and I do believe the goal post has shifted and there hasn’t been an honest discussion about that.”

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