COHASSET — Unvaccinated students and staff at the Cohasset middle and high schools are now allowed to join their vaccinated counterparts and not wear masks in class after a policy change instituted by the state for schools who have an 80% vaccination rate.
The mandate, first put in place in August, requires staff and students age 5 and up to be masked indoors, except in schools that have reached an 80% vaccination rate and have been approved to relax the mandate by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Guidance sent to school districts on Jan. 10 by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says that in those schools "it is highly recommended that unvaccinated students and staff continue wearing masks," but not required.
Three schools on the South Shore have dropped masks for vaccinated students and staff — the Cohasset middle and high schools and Scituate High School, according to a list compiled by State House News Service from state data.
Norwell was one of the first school districts in the state to reach the 80% vaccinated threshold, but the district reinstated its mask mandate on Jan. 3 amid a surge in cases, Superintendent Matthew Keegan said in an email.
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Cohasset alone appears to have relaxed its rules for unvaccinated middle and high school students following a vote of the school committee Jan. 19. Students and staff must still wear masks in the nurse's office and on school buses.
Scituate allowed vaccinated high school students and staff to drop their masks on Dec. 15, but the unvaccinated must still wear masks.
Cohasset dropped masks for the vaccinated in the high school on Dec. 6 and for the middle school on Jan. 1 before the mask requirement was dropped altogether on Jan. 19.
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A change in the rules
The original policy — described by Baker administration officials as a way to incentivize vaccination — allowed schools to stop requiring masks for vaccinated staff and students only.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education confirmed the policy was updated with the Jan. 10 mandate extension.
Mandates have been a source of tension since the start of the pandemic. Some have called for the state to implement uniform requirements on masking as a public health measure, while others view them as overreach and think it's time to return to pre-COVID protocols.
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meetings this academic year have featured testimony from parents, students and health professionals with various stances on masking, and mask debates have played out before local school committees.
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A bill the House passed last week includes $25 million for "the acquisition and distribution of high-quality personal protective masks for children and faculty in elementary and secondary public school districts," and a similar bill is expected to clear the Senate this week. As the highly transmissible omicron variant has sharpened focus on the quality of face-coverings, the White House has indicated plans to make millions of N95 masks available for free.
In Massachusetts, masks are mandatory in some settings such as hospitals and on public transit. A Department of Public Health advisory recommends, but does not require, that all residents wear masks in indoor public spaces. Some municipalities, including Boston, have their own mandates in place.
As case counts and soared this winter and hospital beds filled up with COVID patients, some legislative Democrats have been calling for the Baker administration to re-impose a statewide universal mask mandate. At a Jan. 11 oversight hearing, Sen. Jo Comerford asked Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders if she believes the Baker administration "must act immediately to institute a universal mask mandate like New York and California."
Sudders said the administration is "not considering a universal mask mandate at this time."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status or local transmission rates.
In announcing its extension of mask requirements this month, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education called masks an "important measure to keep students, teachers and staff in school safely."
As of Jan. 14, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had granted 31 schools with vaccination rates at or above 80% permission to lift the mask requirements. Not all schools have taken advantage of that option.
During the week from Jan. 13 through Jan. 19, education officials reported 28,151 new student cases of COVID-19 and 4,758 new cases among staff members statewide.
Gov. Charlie Baker, announcing new COVID-19 testing options for schools last week, said getting the vaccines is "the best thing you can do to protect yourself, our educators and our kids."
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State House News Service reporter Chris Van Buskirk contributed to this report. Reach reporter Wheeler Cowperthwaite at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Cohasset HS, MS only South Shore schools to end masks for unvaccinated