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Massachusetts to lift public school mask mandate on Feb. 28

February 10, 2022 GMT
A passer-by adjusts her mask, left, while walking on a sidewalk in the fashionable Newbury Street neighborhood of Boston, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Students and staff at public schools in Massachusetts will no longer be required to wear face coverings while indoors starting Feb. 28, state officials said Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
A passer-by adjusts her mask, left, while walking on a sidewalk in the fashionable Newbury Street neighborhood of Boston, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Students and staff at public schools in Massachusetts will no longer be required to wear face coverings while indoors starting Feb. 28, state officials said Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
A passer-by adjusts her mask, left, while walking on a sidewalk in the fashionable Newbury Street neighborhood of Boston, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Students and staff at public schools in Massachusetts will no longer be required to wear face coverings while indoors starting Feb. 28, state officials said Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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A passer-by adjusts her mask, left, while walking on a sidewalk in the fashionable Newbury Street neighborhood of Boston, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Students and staff at public schools in Massachusetts will no longer be required to wear face coverings while indoors starting Feb. 28, state officials said Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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A passer-by adjusts her mask, left, while walking on a sidewalk in the fashionable Newbury Street neighborhood of Boston, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Students and staff at public schools in Massachusetts will no longer be required to wear face coverings while indoors starting Feb. 28, state officials said Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Students and staff at Massachusetts public schools won’t have to wear face coverings indoors starting Feb. 28, Gov. Charlie Baker and state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Wednesday.

The decision was made in consultation with infectious disease physicians, the state Department of Public Health, and other medical experts, they said.

“Given the extremely low risk to young people, the widespread availability and the proven effectiveness of vaccines, and the distribution of accurate test protocols, and tests, it’s time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools,” the Republican governor said at a news conference.

The decision in Massachusetts comes as the governors of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon this week announced plans to lift mandates in schools by the end of February or March, and as some communities in Massachusetts lift indoor mask mandates.

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Riley implemented the mask requirement in August to stem the spread of the coronavirus in schools, and it was extended several times, most recently in early January when the highly contagious omicron variant was surging.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest school employee union in the state with about 115,000 members, questioned the date the mask mandate will be lifted.

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“No doubt all of our educators want a return to normalcy, but this is premature,” union President Merrie Najimy said in a phone interview. She noted that Feb. 28 is the first day children return to class after a week off, and new coronavirus cases typically spike after vacations and holidays. She suggested waiting until mid-March at the earliest.

More than 40 schools statewide already have been given permission to lift mask mandates after reaching an 80% vaccination threshold among staff and students.

Riley pointed out that some students may continue to choose to wear a mask, and some individual schools districts may choose to extend the mask requirement beyond Feb. 28.

Students and faculty may still have to wear masks in certain scenarios, he said. For example, a student who tests positive for the coronavirus is required to stay at home for five days, then wear a mask for five days upon returning to the classroom.

Masks will still be required on school buses, per federal regulations, he said.

Massachusetts is lifting the school masking requirement based in part on high vaccination rates among students. The state is second in the nation for vaccinations in children age 5 to 11, and 82% of 16- to 19-year-olds have received as least one shot, he said.

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“During the past two years, the impact of COVID on children has caused a strain on their mental health, emotional well-being and academic success,” Riley said.

“We believe removing the mask requirement will make it easier for students to learn, particularly our young readers and students learning English as a second language,” he added.

The Department of Early Education and Care, which oversees day care and preschool facilities, will also lift the mask requirements currently in place for all licensed child care providers effective Feb. 28.

Although Massachusetts does not have a statewide mandate, some cities and towns have required masks for indoor public spaces such as restaurants and gyms. But several communities, most notably Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, have in recent days announced plans to lift them as the number of new coronavirus cases plummets.

Several people protesting COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates made their way into the Statehouse during Baker’s news conference, even though the building remains closed to the public.

About 10 people pushed past a Department of Conservation and Recreation ranger, but Baker was not interrupted. The protesters left on their own and no arrests were made, state police said.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.