BOSTON (CBS) – The statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools in Massachusetts will be lifted on February 28, Governor Charlie Baker and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced Wednesday.
"The reason we are taking the mask mandate off is we do believe between our testing infrastructure, our vaccination programs, our data and the guidance we've gotten from a lot of people we've talked to in the public health community is there is a consequence at this point for keeping kids in masks, and we think we should move beyond that," Baker said during the announcement at the State House.
DESE said in a statement the decision was made "in consultation with infectious disease physicians, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and other medical experts."
"We are relieved to now be in a place where we can provide young people additional relief from COVID-19 restrictions so they can continue to move towards normalcy in the classroom," said Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
The mask mandate for all licensed child care providers will also end on February 28. The Department of Early Education and Care will have more information for those programs next week.
The Archdiocese of Boston later announced Wednesday afternoon it is also eliminating all mask mandates for Catholic schools as of February 28.
Students will still be required to wear masks on all school buses because that is a federal order. COVID testing will also continue. If students test positive, they will still be required to wear a mask when they return to school, based on DESE's protocols.
"I think we've tried over the course of the last couple years to take seriously the fact that this is something we're going to be dealing with for an extended period of time," Baker said. "I think it's going to be important for all of us to understand this is something we're going to have to incorporate into the way we live."
Many parents and students at school pickup in Watertown Wednesday afternoon felt a sense of relief after a challenging two years.
"It will feel awesome," said Watertown student Tess Corbett. "Because our whole middle school experience was just COVID."
"Beyond hard," said Melissa Parker, a Watertown parent. "Emotionally, physically, mentally, all of the above."
"She doesn't really know what she's been missing out on," said parent Nicholas Nitschke. "She hasn't had a normal middle school experience, but she's making the most out of what she has."
Winter break for Massachusetts schools begins the week of February 21. Riley said at-home tests given to students and teachers will hopefully flag any COVID cases following that break as the mask mandate ends.
Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy said she believes it is too soon to be removing the mask mandate.
"We have enough experience with school vacation to anticipate those are periods of likely surge. It's far better to wait to mid to late March and look at the conditions then," Najimy said. "It's a far more complex situation than the governor and commissioner wish to acknowledge it."
According to DESE, 42 public schools have been given approval to lift their mask mandates as of Wednesday. That's because at least 80-percent of all students and staff at those schools have been vaccinated, which is the state's threshold for removing the masks.
With the mandate lifted, school districts will no longer need to request a waiver. DESE said masking in schools will now be a "community choice."
At a school committee meeting in Wayland Wednesday night, the pressure was on. Every parent and child who spoke asked for schools to go mask optional.
"The only real year of school I've ever had was kindergarten," one student said.
"COVID-19 has changed our lives enough. You only get to live once. Why are we spending it wearing masks and being scared all the time?" another said.
But others fear what's next - including many parents in Boston schools where vaccination uptake is lower - and classrooms more packed.
Genelle Faulkner, a sixth grade science teacher at the Young Achievers School in Mattapan, believes the decision sends the wrong message.
"My feeling is that saying you don't have to wear masks anymore might signal to them oh – the pandemic's over. We're all set. I still need them to have that awareness," Faulkner said.
As for school sports, the MIAA is not overseen by DESE. Riley said that department will be making some statements in the future about what's going to happen with athletes and masks.
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