The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted Tuesday to grant the Massachusetts education commissioner the power to establish a statewide mask mandate in schools this fall.
By a 9-1 vote during a virtual meeting, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to give Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to require masks in K-12 schools for the imminent start of the third academic year influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riley has said the mandate he plans to impose will require all students and staff wear masks indoors through Oct. 1. After that date, the commissioner's policy would allow middle and high schools to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff only if the school meets an 80% vaccination rate.
"I want to be clear that we are hopeful that this will be a short-term measure, and we continue to work with the health and medical community on off-ramps for masking," Riley said ahead of the vote.
He said he could not rule out the possibility that masks "may be required intermittently throughout the year" based on the path the virus takes.
The board's vote -- a shift from the Baker administration's previous approach of recommending masks for unvaccinated individuals in schools but allowing individual districts to adopt their own policies -- comes after dozens of school committees, boards of health and other local officials across the state had already decided to require masks in their schools.
Education Secretary James Peyser said the policy would both permit a smooth reopening of school "without any confusion or ambiguity about the health protocols that everyone is expected to follow," and reinforce the importance of vaccination.
Board member Paymon Rouhanifard, who voted no, said it was "just, frankly, really bad public policy" to tie the proposal to vaccination rates, and said he thinks linking it to community spread would have been a "more reasonable" alternative.
"I'm old enough to remember how this all started," he said. "When this all started, it was about flattening the curve, and the curve, you may recall, was about hospitalization rate and count, and all of a sudden, we're now focused on case count, and I do believe the goal post has shifted and there hasn't been an honest discussion about that."
Riley said in a statement Friday that the reason for the mask mandate is to ensure that schools fully reopen safely and to give students and teachers more time to get vaccinated.
“As students and staff prepare to return to school full-time, in-person, our priority is on a smooth reopening. With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall," Riley said.
In a written statement Tuesday, Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said the vote is "a significant advancement toward keeping our communities safe."
"As we have been saying for many months now, our top priority is to get our schools open safely and keep them open for full in-person learning," said Najimy. "This vote is a step toward that goal."
The Massachusetts Teachers Association is also calling for required vaccinations for all school employees and for all eligible students.
The mask mandate will only apply indoors and to children 5 and older. It will also include exceptions for students who cannot wear a mask due to medical conditions or other behavioral needs.
Riley said he will revisit the mandate in the near future and revise it as warranted by public health data.