Schools to follow new guidelines making masks optional

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Students arrive at North Attleborough Middle School for the first day of classes last September. Staff Photo/Max Bowen

By Max Bowen-max.bowen@northstarreporter.com

Superintendent John Antonucci said the town’s schools will follow the lifting of the state mask mandate at the end of the month.

On Feb. 9, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced that a mandate enacted last August requiring masks for all public schools would be lifted on Feb. 28. Mask requirements currently in place for all licensed child care providers will also be lifted on Feb. 28. These providers can develop policies specific to the children they serve. Masking continues to be required on all school buses, per federal order.

The announcement cited the increased number of vaccinated people in Massachusetts as well as other treatments for those infected with COVID-19. In Massachusetts, 52 percent of all individuals who are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose, compared to 42 percent of the national population, according to the DESE announcement.

During the past two years, the impact of COVID-19 on children has caused a strain on their mental health, emotional well-being and academic success. We are relieved to now be in a place where we can provide young people additional relief from COVID-19 restrictions so they can continue to return to normalcy in the classroom,” said DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.

After the end of the month, mask mandates will become a decision to be made on the local level, and will otherwise be optional in the schools.

With Massachusetts a national leader in vaccinating kids, combined with our robust testing programs, it is time to lift the mask mandate in schools and give students and staff a sense of normalcy after dealing with enormous challenges over the past two years,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “We have all the tools to keep schools safe as we move into dealing with the next phase of managing COVID.”

Antonucci said that he plans to follow this change and make masks optional for students, faculty, and visitors. He said that North Attleborough has been consistent and successful in adhering to the state’s guidelines and doesn’t expect this approach to change.

In an e-mail sent to parents on Thursday, he wrote that masking will be optional for all students, faculty, and staff, regardless of vaccination status, in all North Attleborough Public School buildings. In addition to being required on buses, masks will need to be worn in the nurse’s office and on the five days following an individual’s five-day isolation from a positive COVID case.

I think it’s great news,” he said of the lifting of the mandate. “We’ve been living COVID-related challenges for almost two years now and any move to normalcy for our students, faculty, and staff is a good thing. We all need to learn to live with it and try to return to business as usual as we can.”

Late last August, the Board of Health voted to enact a mask mandate for the town’s schools, as DESE had not yet made a decision on the matter. Health Department Director Anne Marie Fleming said that the DESE mandate supersedes that of the board, making it null and void.

The DESE guidance would preempt the BOH vote, per the Board’s wishes,” wrote Fleming.

In December, cases of COVID—largely fueled by the Omicron variant—surged to levels not seen in months. However, cases statewide have been on a sharp decline in recent weeks. According to a chart of COVID-19 cases on the school web site, there were 260 cases reported the week of Jan. 6. That number dropped to 75 as of the week of Jan. 27.

According to the Mass Department of Public Health, the seven-day average in early January was over 22,000 cases statewide. As of Feb. 8, that average has decreased to 1,920. In early January, the town’s two-week case count was 869, and has since dropped to 370. The positivity rate has gone from nearly 26 percent down to almost 16 over the last month.