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Mass. will stop requiring masks in public schools. It's an uneasy milestone for many

A photo of a mixed-race toddler & her African American mother await the school bus for he first day of preschool while holding hands. the mother holds a mask with hearts on it in her hand.
Catherine McQueen/Getty Images
Massachusetts is lifting its statewide public school mask mandate at the end of the month. Districts will be left to decide whether to enact their own measures.

State officials are phasing out the mask mandate in Massachusetts public schools, and reactions are reliably mixed.

This article was first published by WBUR and shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced the change at a State House press conference Wednesday morning. Baker said given the increasing availability of vaccines, antiviral treatments and rapid tests, "it's time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools."

After the mandate expires on Feb. 28, individual districts can opt to enact local requirements, and students and educators can wear masks in classrooms if they like. Still, this is another step in the slow unwinding of the state's in-school virus mitigation measures, and educators, students and experts remain divided about the prospect.

Beth Humberd called it "great news." Humberd has two children in Andover Public Schools, and helped found Bring Kids Back MA in summer 2020. The volunteer group has pushed for in-person schooling that is "as safe and normal as possible" for students, she said.

"We've always advocated to do that based on the evidence — we've never advocated anything reckless," said Humberd, who also teaches at UMass Lowell's business school. She thinks lifting the statewide mask mandate fits that mold, and that "a growing chorus" of public health experts say it's time to strike a new balance between anti-COVID measures and welcoming school environments

And several local experts have spoken out in support of the change.

In a statement published Wednesday, Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said "cautiously relaxing in-school masking mandates ... is appropriate," as long as officials stand ready to reinstate them should the virus start surging again.

And Shira Doron, the hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, has long argued that mandatory masking is not necessary to keep school safe. On Twitter, though, Doron also shared ferocious pushback to that argument:

Two years into the pandemic, public health officials and researchers can still disagree sharply about prevention strategies, acceptable levels of risk and the definition of safety.

In part, it's because the story of COVID can change so fast.

In November, Hopkinton High School became one of the first in the state to drop mandatory masking in light of its high vaccination rates. But weeks later, as the omicron variant surged, the school reinstated it.

Sean McAuliffe, Hopkinton's public health director, says the town may decide to make another attempt as the mandate expires. But he's not taking anything for granted. "We just can't go into the next three months thinking that we're fine," he said. "Until we really get our percent positivity down below below 1%, I'm still going to be a little nervous.”

It is true that, no matter the age group, Massachusetts' overall youth vaccination rates are well ahead of the national average, as Baker said Wednesday. Since the fall, roughly half of state residents age 5 to 11 have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

But Dr. Julia Raifman at the Boston University School of Public Health says those single number can conceal "an enormous gradient in youth vaccination rates based on income" from, for example, 94% in Newton to 20% in New Bedford.

Raifman, who maintains a database of COVID policies across the U.S., opposed the lifting of the mask mandate because of that sort of disparity. As the state winds down some safety measures, she argued they should also step up multilingual outreach and walk-in clinics in communities like New Bedford.

"We need leaders who lead in protecting the whole of our society — and that means not leaving anybody behind," Raifman said.

Two years into the pandemic, it's hard to distill what it's done to society at large: experiences have varied widely and some families' most painful dilemmas stay hidden from view.

In Boston, Bethany Moffi's 10-year-old daughter has chronic respiratory issues that frequently bring her to the hospital. Speaking with other parents of medically complex children, Moffi says, "it's really a pervasive feeling that, when you do have a child who doesn't fit the description of typically developing kids, we're just invisible in these decisions."

School officials in Boston have signaled they will consider extending the mandate locally. BPS spokesperson Sharra Gaston says administrators are discussing next steps with the Boston Public Health Commission, and that masking "has been and will continue to be a critical component of our health and safety protocols."

Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta said the hard-hit city tends to err on the side of caution, "because we were hit so early in the pandemic. ... We will see what our community decides."

Some city students are resistant to upcoming slackening of public-health measures — especially coming out of the February vacation; school breaks have seemed to breed outbreaks in the past.

If anything, Ajanee Igharo says they want a more serious safety regime in school — one that doesn't fall apart each day in the district's crowded lunchrooms.

“Nobody loves wearing a mask," Igharo said. "Like, no one does it because they think it’s fun and comfortable." But with classmates and family members who are immunocompromised, she said, ending the mandate wasn't "high on our lists at all."

Igharo was recently elected president of the Boston Student Advisory Council, a citywide advocacy group. And she expects the group will lobby to keep masks in place in Boston at least.

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