Massachusetts school mask mandate extended through Feb. 28

By Katie Lannan, State House News Service

Masks will remain required indoors in Massachusetts public schools through at least the end of February, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced Monday.

School staff, students and parents had been awaiting a decision from Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on whether he would leave in place the mask mandate that was set to lapse this coming Saturday, Jan. 15, unless Riley extended it for a third time. Riley in December said he was waiting to give the medical community more time to understand the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Omicron fueled a massive spike in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, and the return to classrooms after winter break was marked at many schools by an abundance of virus-related absences that in some cases caused staffing shortages. Districts reported a total of more than 51,000 new student and staff COVID-19 cases from Dec. 23 to Jan. 5.

More:How many COVID cases in your school? The latest numbers for every district in Central Mass.

At Riley's request, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in August granted him authority to mandate masks in schools for individuals age 5 and up through at least Oct. 1. Riley's latest extension keeps the requirement in place through Feb. 28, 2022.

Masks are not required outdoors, while eating or drinking, or for students who cannot wear one for medical or behavioral reasons. Riley's decision leaves in place the option through which local officials can opt to lift the mandate for vaccinated individuals at a particular school if they first demonstrate to DESE a vaccination rate of at least 80 percent.

"The mask requirement remains an important measure to keep students, teachers and staff in school safely at this time," the department said in a statement. "The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in consultation with medical experts and state health officials, will continue to evaluate public health data." 

More:Worcester Public Schools limit athletic attendance to parents, siblings due to COVID numbers