BOSTON — Schools will be allowed to ease COVID-19 masking requirements beginning next month if they can prove that at least 80% of students and staff are vaccinated.
But superintendents and teachers union officials say the cumbersome process of verifying vaccinations — and the fact that elementary students can’t get vaccines yet — means the face-covering policies are likely to remain in effect for several months in some communities.
The masking mandate, approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by a 9-1 vote in August, requires public school students age 5 and older, educators and other staff to wear face coverings indoors. Initially, the board set Oct. 1 as a deadline, but later extended that date to Nov. 1.
After Nov. 1, middle and high schools will be allowed to lift the rules for vaccinated students and staff if at least 80% have been inoculated. Unvaccinated students and staff will still be required to mask up. The state also encourages children younger than 5 to wear masks.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said previously that the precaution is needed to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in light of rising case numbers attributed to the delta variant.
To date, only one — Hopkinton High School — has been authorized by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to lift its masking policy.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the process of verifying vaccination levels is difficult.
“It’s cumbersome and it takes time,” he said. “I suspect that’s part of the reason why only one district has been given approval to lift the masking restrictions.”
Scott estimates about 20 to 30 school districts will be able to meet the 80% threshold by Nov. 1.
Many school districts are still in the process of verifying how many students and staff have been vaccinated.
In most cases, that process involves providing scanned copy of their COVID-19 vaccine card, but schools can also meet the verification requirements by getting a signed self-attestation from a student, parent or guardian, or a printout from the Massachusetts Immunization Information System.
Under the state’s masking rules, the vaccination rate is calculated on a school-by-school basis, not at the district level. It must include all enrolled students in addition to staff regularly providing in-school services.
The mandate includes exceptions for students who can’t wear masks due to medical conditions or behavioral needs.
Elementary schools are unlikely to lift those policies until federal health officials authorize COVID-19 vaccines for children 11 and younger. That won’t come until after the Federal Drug Administration approves Pfizer/BioNTech’s request for emergency authorization of the vaccine to children ages 5 to 11.
While children have been spared the worst impacts of the virus, health officials say they can still get COVID-19 and become very ill, or infect other people.
State education officials point out that more than 2,200 public and private schools across Massachusetts are scheduled to participate in COVID-19 testing offered by the state. To date, pool testing in schools has consistently shown low positivity rates. In-school transmission of the virus is rare, they say.
Data provided by state education officials shows there were 1,918 confirmed COVID-19 infections among students from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6 — only a small fraction of the 920,000 students currently in-person classes.
Scott said the data shows masking policies are making schools safe and helping prevent the need for a return to remote instruction. He wants the Baker administration to extend the masking requirement beyond November.
“We’re certainly encouraging that the masking requirements continue for a while, at least until we see the vaccination rates going up,” he said.
Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union also hopes the masking policy is extended.
“We would like to see the masks continue, certainly for younger kids, for as long as necessary,” she said. “Parents should feel safe sending their kids to school.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.