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State education board clears way for school mask mandate

August 24, 2021 GMT
FILE — In this Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, file photo, kindergarten students wear masks as they are led into Lee Elementary School, in Lee, Mass. The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 overwhelmingly approved a measure that gives state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to issue a universal mask mandate for the state's K-12 schools. (Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP, File)
FILE — In this Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, file photo, kindergarten students wear masks as they are led into Lee Elementary School, in Lee, Mass. The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 overwhelmingly approved a measure that gives state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to issue a universal mask mandate for the state's K-12 schools. (Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP, File)
FILE — In this Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, file photo, kindergarten students wear masks as they are led into Lee Elementary School, in Lee, Mass. The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 overwhelmingly approved a measure that gives state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to issue a universal mask mandate for the state's K-12 schools. (Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP, File)

MALDEN, Mass. (AP) — The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education overwhelmingly approved a measure Tuesday that gives state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to issue a universal mask mandate for K-12 public schools.

Riley is expected to formally issue the indoor mandate as early as Wednesday and has previously said it would last through Oct. 1, or for about the first month of the new school year.

A mandate would mark a shift for the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, which had previously left face covering decisions up to individual districts, and comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to drive up case counts around the state.

“Ultimately, we believe that vaccinations will be the most important factor in bringing this pandemic to an end,” Riley said. “We know that a return this fall to full-time, in-person instruction is crucial. And after the challenges of last year, it will be incredibly important for this year to get off on a strong start.”

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He also said it is possible masks “may be required intermittently throughout the year based on the trajectory of the virus.”

Students with certain medical conditions or behavioral needs would be exempt from the requirement. Students under age 5 would also be exempted.

Under Riley’s plan, middle and high schools would be allowed to lift the mask mandate after Oct. 1 if at least 80% of staff and students are fully vaccinated.

Board member Paymon Rouhanifard was the only member to vote against the mask policy.

“This proposal plays to the visceral tendencies of our body politic that should not ultimately drive public policy,” he said. “I really think we need to signal that better things, better days are ahead because they are.”

The state has come under increasing pressure from teachers unions, health care professionals and others to issue a school mask mandate.

The vote was welcomed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“Based on science and the views of public health experts, we know that a mask requirement will help protect all Massachusetts students, families and educators,” Merrie Najimy, the 110,000-member union’s president said in a statement.

The union also called for other measures to thwart the spread of the virus, including upgraded ventilation systems, access to COVID-19 testing for all students and education staff, and appropriate physical distancing.

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VIRUS BY THE NUMBERS

The number of new cases of COVID-19 increased by nearly 1,300 Tuesday while the number of newly confirmed coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts rose by 16.

The new numbers pushed the state’s confirmed COVID-19 death toll to 17,825 since the start of the pandemic, while its confirmed caseload rose to more than 699,000.

There were about 570 people reported hospitalized Tuesday because of confirmed cases of COVID-19, with about 140 in intensive care units.

The average age of those who have died from COVID-19 was 75.

The true number of cases is likely higher because studies suggest some people can be infected and not feel sick.

More than 4.4 million people in Massachusetts have been fully immunized against COVID-19.