Public Policy Updates: Special August meeting, 2021

Today, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held a special meeting to consider Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s request for authority to implement additional public health measures for all Massachusetts public schools prior to reopening for this school year, specifically masking in school buildings for all those ages five and up. Video of this meeting, which was held remotely, can be found online here


The Commissioner briefly outlined the current circumstances in which the state finds itself relative to the virus and how that has changed since the spring. He said that the state will be “looking for off-ramps for masking,” and that while they are “hopeful this will be the final hurdle of the pandemic,” that it is possible that masking “may be required intermittently throughout the year.” The Commissioner stressed that not only vaccinations would be considered in making the decision regarding mask requirements, but that this would additionally stress the importance of vaccinations in safely operating schools.

Secretary Jim Peyser thanked the Commissioner “for his leadership in putting forward this proposal.” He stressed that this was focused on the smooth reopening of schools. He noted that this proposal would create incentives for districts to encourage vaccinations, which would move towards a more fully normal experience.

Member Marty West acknowledged the “thousands” who had written to the Board; he said he wanted to reject the idea that this was simply a matter of following the science. He questioned the efficacy of masks and said that he was concerned about students being unable to see their teachers’ faces. He was troubled that schools would be requiring masks when other places were not. He argued that the Board’s responsibility in this circumstance was to decide if the situation warranted the Board’s granting of such authority. In hopes that it would preventing large numbers of students from neeing to quarantine, he said he would support the measure. He was concerned about the clear “off ramp” on masking, particularly as a “continued default” for elementary students. He also did not want to see students bullied once masks were made a requirement only for those who were unvaccinated, arguing that students should not have to explain their status or why they are unmasked.

Member Paymon Rouhanifard opened by saying “I’m a no on this vote,” though he added that he didn’t think it was a hill to die on. He argued that typing masking to vaccination rates is “really bad public policy.” He said a more “reasonable offramp would have been tying to community spread.” He said he was surprised this had Governor Charlie Baker’s support, as he usually has “technocratic policy solutions.” He said that hospitalizations and deaths were very low. He said, “I think erring on the side of caution loses sight of the bigger picture,” and that he felt that practicing social distancing and masking “sounds like a religion.”

Member Matt Hills opened by saying that people should vote the way they want “and be respected for it.” He said he regretted not speaking out when several other members criticized comments made by another during a prior meeting. The Department needs to move without regard to prior decisions; our leaders,he said, “have done exactly what we should want them to do.” And the “pandemic “which isn’t over yet.” In his view, the Commissioner “has been very deft” in how he has uses the power he has asked for; Hills said, “as a Board member, Jeff is exactly the sort of person we’d want to entrust with this responsibility.” This is, he said, “straightforward to me, not because it’s perfect, but we don’t have the luxury of only voting when the situation is perfect.” His hope was that we have a smooth opening to the school year and in a month “are talking about” relaxing the standards.”

Chair Katherine Craven thanked the public for their emails, the Board for their deliberation, and called for a vote.

The measure passed, 9-1, Rouhanifard against.

The meeting was adjourned.

The Board next is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, September 21.