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No more mask mandate for Boston Public Schools

Anna Lamb
No more mask mandate for Boston Public Schools

After months of repeated messaging by Boston Public Schools and city leadership that masks would remain in place for students and staff at BPS, Monday marked the first day that masks were optional for those in good health on school grounds.

In a letter sent to parents last Wednesday, BPS Superintendent Brenda Casselius said, “over the last 14 days, the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has observed a sustained downward trend in case rate and hospital admission along with a stabilization of viral wastewater concentration … Based upon these trends, we advise that masking no longer be required indoors in Boston Public Schools.”

The decision, which comes with just 10 days left in the school year, is in stark contrast to guidelines the health commission laid out in March — that the mandate would lift when coronavirus cases dropped below 10 per 100,000. According to the latest BPHC data, cases are at 27.1 per 100,000.

Boston was one of the last Massachusetts municipalities to keep the mask mandate after the state mandate was lifted back in February. Cases across the state have continued to decline over the last several weeks, after an initial spike from rapidly spreading Omicron cases. Last week there were 4,073 cases amongst Massachusetts students, and 1,461 amongst staff.

In response to the declining cases, State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced that Massachusetts would also be ending its test-and-stay program, and would no longer will supply self-tests or other COVID testing services to schools starting this fall.

However, concerns still remain among parents and educators who are questioning the decision to unmask so close to the end of the school year.

Jose Valenzuela, a teacher at Boston Latin Academy, shared his initial observations on the first mask-optional day in his classroom. He wrote on Twitter that 62% of students were masked, while 38% of his students were unmasked. Additionally, he said that “students that identify as male made up the majority (77%) of the unmasked that I saw today.”

He told the Banner in a statement that he’s hopeful that the decision to make masks optional will not negatively impact student or family health, but that he believes mask wearing was and is an effective tool in fighting against the spread of COVID-19.

“We wouldn’t know the impact until the school year is over, and unfortunately, BPS absolves itself of the responsibility of any harm. We know masks are effective and the majority of my students continue to wear them, and in the final 10 days I can only hope that is enough,” Valenzuela said.

Suleika Soto, a parent organizer with the Boston Justice Alliance and a co-founder of Parents for COVID Safety, echoed Valenzuela’s concerns, saying that the decision by BPS is “reckless. It’s irresponsible,” she said.

Soto continued, “I just feel like they’re given up on COVID when COVID hasn’t given up on us.”

She pointed to a struggle by city schools to implement equal social distancing and air filtration measures across all BPS Schools. Soto said that is especially clear when looking at the BPS Air Quality Dashboard, which shows offline systems and high rates of carbon dioxide — an indicator of how quickly a COVID infection could spread.

“They’re just putting these kids in a COVID cesspool,” Soto said.

Coronavirus cases in Boston have fluctuated over the last several weeks — last week there were 270 cases among students, compared to 215 the week before and 384 the last week of May.

Advocates like Soto believe that the decision by the city and education officials comes on the heels of continued protest by anti-mask advocates who have been increasingly vocal over the last several months calling for an end to the mandate. Last week, protestors at the Kenny School in Dorchester caused a brief lockdown after demanding entry for a 9-year-old student not wearing a mask.

Mayor Michelle Wu told reporters on Monday that the decision to make masks optional was based on data, and that she believes the decision also extends beyond this school year.

“I know it feels like there’s only a few days here and there but COVID is not going to be gone by next school year. My kids have 10 more years of being in the Boston Public Schools with COVID. And so this is really about acknowledging that we need to have a long-term approach that is based on the metrics, based on watching the trends at this point in our situation with COVID,” she said.

“We have a very clear idea of how to track cases, how cases get treated in the hospital system, and that’s helped us shape and tailor the strategy so we can move away from a blanket one size fits all to a tailored approach that will be applicable for the long term and as we continue monitoring.”

Some situations will still warrant mask-wearing according to BPS. In her letter, Casselius states that masks will be required in school health offices, for students and staff diagnosed with COVID-19 but returning to school before the end of their 10-day isolation period, for students and staff who are identified as part of an in-school transmission cluster or in a cluster being investigated, and for students and staff who are experiencing COVID symptoms while in school.