As younger children get vaccinated, it’s time to plan for lifting the school mask mandate

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This article was written by The Editorial Board of The Boston Globe and published on November 22, 2021.

Last month, over the resistance of some pockets of the state, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley extended the state’s mask mandate for public schools to at least Jan. 15, 2022.

It was a wise decision. COVID-19 vaccine approval for 5- to 11-year-olds was just around the corner, and the extension would give families time to get shots for their children. It would also give public health officials a chance to see, in the early part of next year, if a Christmas COVID spike was materializing.

But if most kids get their shots and there is no significant spike by Jan. 15 — and it might take a bit more time to determine that — what then?

Will it finally be time for the state to lift the mask mandate?

The safest choice would be to extend it even further. And safety is no small consideration in the midst of a pandemic. But reasonable people should agree that the mandate can’t go on forever — that the normality that comes with peeling off masks is too important for childhood development to postpone indefinitely.
There is no doubt that mask mandates have become inordinately controversial. Providing a clear roadmap for how and when mandates can be lifted would be the best way to defuse the issue.

And that means the state will have to make some difficult decisions. Soon.

The first, says Dr. Shira Doron, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center and COVID adviser to Riley and Governor Charlie Baker, is a basic one: deciding on a goal. And that goal, she tells the Globe editorial board, cannot be to prevent every instance of person-to-person transmission. With students back in school, and choir and sports practices in full swing, that’s just not realistic.

What exactly the state should aim for is a decision its leaders will have to make, Doron says, but it should be “something like prevention of outbreaks . . . associated with severe disease.” And with that sort of frame, the outlines of a prudent policy start to take shape.

Under current rules, schools attesting that 80 percent of their students and staff are vaccinated can apply to drop the mask mandate. And a small number are moving in that direction.

The most recent figures from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show that 24 schools have applied for an exemption, and the state has granted permission to 18 — including high schools in Hopkinton, Norwell, and Franklin.

That 80 percent figure is a reasonable one. And whenever the statewide mask mandate is lifted and school districts are more directly confronted with a decision about how to proceed, they could use it as their North Star, barring the emergence of a COVID variant even more potent than Delta.

But that figure shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. Some schools may never reach the 80 percent threshold — especially urban schools with large low-income student populations. And in many communities, a sizeable segment of parents with young children may decline to get their kids vaccinated out of fear of side effects, however unfounded.

That doesn’t mean that widespread vaccine refusal should be tolerated; schools shouldn’t drop mask mandates if half of their students are unvaccinated. But the state can and should adopt nuanced guidelines aimed at curbing outbreaks while tending to the social-emotional health and academic potential of students.

Doron is part of a group of scientists with varying degrees of risk tolerance who have developed a preliminary proposal that sets out different thresholds for different age groups — making it easier for the youngest students, who might struggle the most with masks, to take them off.

The protocol would factor in the vaccination levels in a school building, vaccination levels in the surrounding community, and the prevalence of COVID in the area. And some flexibility would be built in; a school with a slightly lower than hoped-for vaccination rate might be advised that it can drop its mask mandate if the COVID case rate is particularly low in the area, for instance.

The plan has been sent to Commissioner Riley. A spokesperson says Riley “will continue to consult with medical experts” about the mask mandate.

The sort of approach Doron and her colleagues have developed has its downsides; its complexity could frustrate some school officials and parents.

But no approach will satisfy people on both sides of a mask debate that has been riling the reddest parts of the country for months now, is reaching a low boil here in Massachusetts, and will only grow more heated as younger children are vaccinated.

The best thing the state can do is provide a rational and reasonably flexible set of guidelines — one that local officials can deploy with confidence — and let individual communities make the best decisions for their children.