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BPS won’t commit to masking policy

No threshold given for universal masking

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Since the start of school in September, members of Families for COVID Safety have been advocating for stronger safety policies in Boston Public Schools, calling for at least 10 days of masking following the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks.

FamCOSa members were heartened in early November when the New England Journal of Medicine published a research paper that found that BPS officials’ decision to keep masking policies in place in 2021 led to infection rates lower than in surrounding communities such as Cambridge and Newton that made masking optional.

Yet on Nov. 17 when the group met with representatives from BPS and the Boston Public Health Commission, BPS Senior Advisor Megan Costello said masking would not happen.

“Megan Costello said the data did not suggest masking would be recommended,” said FamCOSa member Suleika Soto, a co-director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.

But a BPHC representative told the activists the agency recommends masking 10 days after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, said Soto and another person who was at the meeting.

“I asked, ‘You say you’re following the recommendations of the Boston Public Health Commission. Why are you not following that?’” Soto said.

BPS officials sent a statement on its masking policy to the Banner.

“Masking has been and will continue to be a critical component of our health and safety protocols, along with access to COVID-19 testing, efforts to vaccinate eligible students and staff, and the work to promote ventilation in school buildings,” the statement reads in part.

While the statement notes that masking is strongly recommended if three or more cases are detected in a classroom, BPS officials have not said whether there is a community infection rate at which universal masking would be made mandatory.

“How can they say it’s data-driven?” Soto said. “What data are they following? What exactly is an outbreak? There’s no clear process.”

City Councilor Julia Mejia, who backs FamCOSa’s call for masking following the holidays, said she would have preferred to see BPS take a more proactive approach to preventing COVID spread.

“The concern I have is that if we’re waiting to see that happens before we institute a policy, we’ll be behind the eight-ball,” she said. “I fear it could be a situation where we’re going so see a spike because we didn’t take the necessary steps to contain it.”

Sarah Horsley, a FamCOSa member who was at the meeting with BPS and BPHC, said the rise in flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) this year makes masking an even greater imperative.

“We have right now a ‘triple-demic,’” she said. “Three-quarters of BPS schools don’t have mechanical ventilation.”

In addition to universal masking, FamCOSa members are calling for the reintroduction of pool testing for the coronavirus.

“We need to have a better sense of how many cases there are,” Horsley said.

Currently, BPS distributes at-home tests, but is not doing pool testing in schools.

Soto said the district’s overall approach to stopping the spread of COVID doesn’t inspire confidence.

“I feel like they’re being reactive,” she said. “They’re waiting for something to happen before they take action.”

The study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine was conducted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston University School of Public Health and BPHC. It compared COVID cases in Boston and Chelsea — two districts that kept masking in place — with those in 70 other districts. The lifting of mask mandates was associated with an additional 44.9 COVID cases per 1,000 students and school staff during a 15-week period.