MA high school first to get approval to drop mask mandate. But they don’t

When Massachusetts implemented a mask mandate for public schools this summer, the state received some of the usual pushback we’ve seen in other regions. After further consideration, the guidelines were revised to allow schools to request an exemption from the mandate if they reached a threshold of 80% of all staff and students being fully vaccinated. The first school to both reach that benchmark and request an exemption was Hopkinton High School, located in a rural area to the west of Boston. It’s not a very large school, with a little over one thousand students, so reaching that goal was probably easier for them than some of the significantly larger districts.

Their request was received on October 1st and the state granted the request on October 7th. But there’s another catch to the story. A week later, the mask mandate is still in place and they expect it to remain that way for at least the next couple of weeks. So if they met the requirements, what gives? (CBS Boston)

Hopkinton High School is the first school in Massachusetts to get approval from the state to drop the mask mandate for anyone who’s vaccinated.

But all students and staff at the high school are still being told to wear their masks for now.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) told WBZ-TV Hopkinton High requested approval on October 1 to lift the mask requirement and was given permission on Thursday, October 7.

The culprit here isn’t that state, but rather the Hopkinton School Board themselves. That’s kind of strange, but more on that in a moment. Within hours of receiving permission, the board announced that they were going to put the process on hold and vote on it at a meeting they scheduled for October 21st.

The school Superintendent released a statement explaining the decision. He said they “are taking a cautious, informed approach in order to mitigate risk and to be prepared for the logistics of unmasking, if that does end up being the decision for Hopkinton.” So not only are they not implementing the change as soon as permission was granted, but the head of the school isn’t even saying that it will definitely happen, invoking the phrase, “if that does end up being the decision.”

The reason this seems odd to me is that the suspension of the mandate isn’t automatic for all schools once they reach 80% vaccination. Each school has to request the waiver once they get to that point, just as Hopkinton did. And that means that the School Board must have voted to do so. Wouldn’t that imply that they had a majority of members who were not in favor of mask mandates or at least not in favor of making them permanent? Why put in the request if you don’t have any intention of making the change?

The upshot here is that after finding out that the request had been approved and the mandate could be lifted on October 7th, the kids are now going to be stuck wearing masks for at least an additional two weeks. And it could be much longer than that based on how their superintendent is phrasing it. Nothing like getting their hopes up only to dash them repeatedly. But what caused the pause?

This report from News 25 in Boston offers a few more details and interviews, but nothing very concrete. They spoke to at least one parent who wasn’t upset about being approved to end the mandate but said she still thought they should wait. (She recently lost two family members to COVID.) They also interviewed one student who opined that if they delayed it once, they’ll probably keep delaying it. He described seeing “so many students” with their masks pulled down in the halls and just leaving them on the table in the cafeteria while eating lunch. That led him to say, “You start to wonder how much it’s really doing anything.”

Good question. Perhaps someone should be addressing that subject to the Board and finding out just how long this process is going to drag out.

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