Two senior federal health and education officials came to Boston on Friday and said masks still have a vital role to play in keeping school buildings safe this fall.
Their message went beyond the latest policy set by state education officials, which “strongly recommends” masks for unvaccinated students and staff but does not require them.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke at a town hall meeting hosted by the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA of Greater Boston.
Walensky said the United States has a “tough road” due to the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant of this coronavirus – and with less than half of the population fully vaccinated.
Walensky, who was previously Chief of Infectious Diseases at Mass. General Hospital, said she regretted that the masks had become “politicized” in recent months.
âAs a health care provider, I have masked myself so many times for so many reasons,â Walensky said. “It’s about protecting each other and protecting ourselves.”
She reiterated that while the CDC cannot dictate policy at the state or local level, its current guidelines are that “everyone entering the school – students, staff, teachers, visitors – should be masked. at any time in the school â.
Several Massachusetts school districts, including Boston, Springfield and Cambridge, are planning to require students and staff to wear masks indoors when classes resume in a few weeks.
Questioner Emily Rosa, a relative of two METCO students, said she had “always been respected teachers, but now I kneel before them.” She asked Cardona what is being done to protect and reward educators after now three school years of adjustments.
Cardona said the Biden administration was sending billions to both rehabilitate school buildings and fill district coffers, but then brought it back to the security challenges of the fall.
“We are still discussing whether or not to wear masks to school in places with a high spread,” he said. âPlease don’t tell me that you like teachers if you’re not prepared to do what you need to do to protect them. “
Walensky and Cardona both recognized the difficulty of continued vigilance – and the reality of “mask fatigue” – but described it as a small price to pay for safe and uninterrupted face-to-face learning.
In a note sent to Governor Charlie Baker on Friday, Massachusetts Senate Speaker Karen Spilka made a similar note.
“No one wants to go back to the dark early days of this public health crisis,” Spilka wrote as she called for a statewide mask mandate. âWearing a mask around vulnerable populations, including unvaccinated children and others, is a simple and small action we can take to do just that. “
But so far the Baker administration has not changed its stance on masks in schools.
In the guidelines released last week, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley wrote that the state’s high immunization rates and the relatively low risk of COVID-19 for children “reinforce the fact that many measures of mitigation of COVID-19 previously instituted in schools are no longer necessary â.
In the past two weeks, the state has reported 1,819 new cases of COVID-19 among residents under the age of 19, and the CDC found in June that a growing number of teens hospitalized with symptoms of the disease. disease – but none resulted in death.
Baker spokeswoman Anisha Chakrabarti noted on Friday that very few fully vaccinated people had suffered serious illness from COVID-19. She described state guidelines recommending masks as “another step in Massachusetts’ return to the new normal, which is extremely important for young people and their education.”