Commissioner granted authority to mandate masks in schools

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North Attleborough High School

By Max Bowen-max.bowen@northstarreporter.com

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) has voted to grant Commissioner of Education Jeff Riley the authority to require masks at public schools through at least the beginning of October.

At the remote meeting held on Tuesday, Aug. 24, the board discussed the motion, which reads as follows:

That the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, in accordance with G.L. c. 69, § 1B, and consistent with 603 CMR 27.08(1), determines that exigent circumstances exist that adversely affect the ability of students to attend classes in a safe environment unless additional health and safety measures are put in place, and authorizes the Commissioner to require masks for public school students (age 5 and above) and staff in all grades through at least October 1, 2021.”

The mandate applies to all public school students in grades K-12 as well as staff and visitors. If at least 80 percent of students and staff in middle/high schools have been vaccinated, the mandate would be lifted for those persons after Oct. 1. Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks. The mandate would include exceptions for students who cannot wear a mask due to medical conditions or behavioral needs.

The meeting lasted for a little over 20 minutes and more than 1,100 people watched. No time was given for public comment. The board voted 9-1, with member Paymon Rouhanifard the sole dissenting vote.

Board member Martin West expressed concern over the lack of an end date for those in grades K-6. He was frustrated that similar measures were not being taken in other locations. He also raised the issue of the impacts of students not being able to see their teacher’s faces, and was “reluctantly convinced” that exigent circumstances now exist.

I’m hopeful that it sends a clear message to educators that vaccinations are the first line of defense,” he said.

Rouhanifard said that tying masking to vaccination rates was bad public policy, and suggested that the spread of COVID in a community would be a better metric. He told the board that at the onset of the pandemic, the focus was on flattening the curve of hospitalizations and that the goalpost has been moved to case counts.

Rouhanifard added that the debate over COVID has turned political with blue states going too far with restrictions and red states not going far enough.

We need to signal that better days are ahead and they are,” he said. “Without a clear off-ramp I can’t support this.”

Board member Matt Hills said that the Massachusetts government has dealt with the situation in a good way. But he said that the pandemic is not over and it needs to be seen what has brought the state to this point. He credited health leaders who “stuck their necks out” when giving advice on school re-openings earlier this year. He felt that Riley’s plan sets clear exit ramps and that restrictions won’t be kept in place for no reason.

It has the flexibility to evolve, I feel its straightforward,” said Hills. “A month from now I hope to see success in the mandate relaxing.”