State unveils mask recommendations for schools this fall

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Students at North Attleborough High School eat lunch outdoors. Staff Photo/Max Bowen
The Fall Festival by North Attleboro Rotary Club

By Max Bowen-max.bowen@northstarreporter.com

In a statement issued on Friday, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is recommending mask wearing across grade levels, though not for those that have been vaccinated.

Developed jointly with the Department of Public Health (DPH), the recommendation—not mandated—is for all students in kindergarten through grade six to wear masks when indoors, except those who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs.

Masks would not be necessary outdoors and may be removed while eating indoors. The same recommendation was made for unvaccinated staff in all grades, unvaccinated students in grades seven and above, and unvaccinated visitors.

DESE and DPH recommend that schools allow vaccinated students to remain unmasked.

The announcement also states that districts and schools will be required to be in-person, full-time, five days a week this fall.

Today’s guidance is a recommendation for districts, and individual districts should make decisions based on their own particular circumstances,” the statement read.

At this time, North Attleborough Schools has not made a decision regarding the wearing of masks this fall. The School Committee will discuss the reopening plan at its Aug. 2 meeting. The town currently has 13 active COVID cases, though it remains in the Grey designation from DPH. This designation is for communities with very low case rates.

DESE and DPH urge all schools, and in particular those with vaccination rates below the Massachusetts state average, to host an on-site vaccination clinic during summer orientation events or when classes begin.

Mask guidance for the public

On Friday, DPH issued a new mask advisory, following the CDC’s updated guidance. Fully vaccinated individuals are advised to wear a mask or face covering when indoors outside of the home if they have a weakened immune system, are at increased risk for COVID-19, or if someone in their household is at increased risk or unvaccinated.

Masks are still mandatory for all individuals on public and private transportation systems (including rideshares, livery, taxi, ferries, MBTA, Commuter Rail and transportation stations), in healthcare facilities and in other settings hosting vulnerable populations, such as congregate care settings.

Response from legislators, educators

State Sen. Becca Rausch issued a statement on Friday, saying that Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration failed the children and families of the commonwealth.

“The DESE/DPH masking guidance falls far short of the data-driven recommendations of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and hundreds of Massachusetts medical and public health experts: everyone age 2 and up in every school setting – from childcare through grade 12 – must wear masks indoors,” the statement read. “Kids, parents, teachers, and school committees have been through enough; they deserve better than weak, unenforceable, non-binding guidelines that further endanger their health and safety.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) released a statement calling the guidance “no guidance at all.” The association stated that rather adopting a plan in line with what the CDC and AAP are recommending, DESE is telling students, faculty, and parents that the rise in COVID cases should not be taken seriously.

This is a reckless decision,” the statement reads. “But fortunately, there is time for DESE to correct its course. Educators’ unions are already leading in this fight — and the MTA calls on school districts to immediately exercise their authority and require universal masking to protect the health and safety of students, educators, and their local communities.”

In its statement, the MTA advocates for safe in-person learning, employing stringent health and safety practices. In addition to requiring masking, it recommends repairing ventilation systems and maintaining air quality in schools.

By failing to engage in meaningful dialogue with educators and other stakeholders, DESE is setting us up for another chaotic school year and increasing the likelihood that schools will again be forced to close,” the statement reads. “That needs to change — and it needs to change right now.”

The Fall Festival by North Attleboro Rotary Club