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'Most Polarizing Issue': Is Massachusetts Ready To Let Students Take Off Masks?

BOSTON (CBS) - "We only take our masks off for snack and lunch," said little Grace Goulet outside her Cambridge elementary school. "Grace is immunocompromised," said her mother. "The masks have overall helped us this year with little cost for anyone else."

But Massachusetts' current school mask mandate is set to end February 28. It will be up to state education officials to decide whether to extend that, as they have in the past. Just this week, four other states have gone ahead and put a hard end date on their school masks. Connecticut will stop requiring masks in schools February 28. New Jersey's school mandate ends March 7, and Delaware and Oregon both announced an end date of March 31. That raises the question of whether it's time for Massachusetts to do the same.

"The mask mandate continues in Boston to this point," said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu Tuesday. "One very big gap that we are monitoring very closely, is disparities concerning the pediatric vaccination rate."

WBZ looked into how Massachusetts stacks up against the other four states planning to lift school mask mandates. Massachusetts has the highest elementary vaccination rate among them. 55% of kids ages 5 to 11 in the state have had at least one shot. The others range from 44% in Connecticut to just 31% in Delaware.

State data shows the spread in Massachusetts schools is the lowest it has been since before Thanksgiving. There are currently 54 COVID clusters in Massachusetts schools. During the height of the January surge, there were more than twice as many at 116.

"There is such divisiveness, and this is probably the most polarizing issue of the whole pandemic I think," said Dr. Shira Doron. She said easy access to medical grade masks will be the key to schools eventually going mask optional. "Those who are at-risk, averse or high risk, can wear a medical grade mask that protects them, and for those who really need their child to have normalcy, can have their child go without that mask."

Some Massachusetts schools are already mask-free. That's because the state allows mandates to be lifted where at least 80% of the school population is vaccinated. Governor Charlie Baker has said he expects an announcement on the school mask issue soon.

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