State Board Approves Masks Mandate For Massachusetts Public Schools – But Two Members Express Strong Reservations

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A state board has authorized the state’s education commissioner to require masks for all public school staff and students ages 5 and up in Massachusetts through at least October 1.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 9-1 Tuesday morning in favor of the policy, proposed by state education commissioner Jeff Riley, with the backing of Governor Charlie Baker.

The policy does not mention religious schools or private secular schools.

Riley has said he plans to revisit masks for vaccinated students and staff after October 1 in schools where at least 80 percent of students and staff are vaccinated. In the meantime, students can qualify for medical or behavioral exemptions.

To justify imposing masks, Riley cited increases in coronavirus cases in the state in recent weeks stemming from the delta variant.

“I know we all want this to be over, and we are hopeful that this will be the final hurdle of the pandemic. But we also cannot completely rule out the possibility that masks may be required intermittently throughout the year based on the trajectory of the virus and any new emerging variants,” Riley said during the meeting Tuesday, August 24. “In some ways we’re having to learn to live with this virus.”

Riley acknowledged that students have attended summer school programs without masks in Massachusetts, but he presented virus statistics that he said have changed the thinking of state officials. Here’s a slide showing recent numbers:


Source: Massachusetts Education Commissioner


James Peyser, Governor Baker’s secretary of education, touted the mask mandate as appropriate, and he said it’s important to create incentives for getting vaccinated.

“Obviously, circumstances may change in the coming weeks, which may allow us to take a different course as the commissioner said. But for now the safest and simplest path forward is to mask up in schools as we all work to meet or exceed the 80 percent vaccination benchmark that we’re talking about,” Peyser said.

Only four of the 10 board members spoke about the policy during the online meeting, which lasted 22 minutes 14 seconds.

Two of them poured cold water on the masks policy.

Martin West, a board member appointed by Governor Baker, voted for the policy, but he spent most of his time arguing against it.

“In thinking about the proposal, I want to reject the notion that the decision we’re confronting is a simple matter of following the science. In my judgment, evidence on the efficacy of masking in school settings for preventing the spread of Covid is less clear cut than is often suggested,” West said. “Nor does science tell us how to value whatever benefits it produces against the costs to students of not being able to see their teachers’ faces for most of the school day.”

West said it doesn’t make sense to him to start with schools without mandating masks in other places first.

“I want to express my frustration, frankly, that we’re considering imposing mitigation measures on schools at a time when similar measures are not currently in place in seemingly similar settings populated by adults. In my view, schools should be the last places we impose such measures on, not the first,” West said. “But that’s not something that we, as a board, on our own, control.”

West also said he is troubled by the idea that at some point in the future public schools in Massachusetts may have two groups of people:  mask-less vaccinated students and masked unvaccinated students.

“On both practical and ethical grounds, I’m not sure that this approach works. I’m not sure how we’ll know who’s vaccinated. I’m not sure that we really want students to be in a position of explaining why they’re not vaccinated, or of tattling on each other for inappropriately going unmasked,” West said. “So, if the data show that there’s very low within-school transmission once 80 percent of students and staff are vaccinated, then I think we should move immediately to at least experiment with letting all students to remove masks, whether they’re vaccinated or not.”

West is the academic dean and a professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Baker appointed West to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in October 2017.

West said the coronavirus numbers presented by Riley persuaded him to vote for allowing the commissioner to impose masks.

Yet Riley’s numbers did not persuade board member Paymon Rouhanifard, another Baker appointee, who pointed out that coronavirus vaccination rates in Massachusetts are high, while deaths and hospitalizations from the virus are low, even with recent increases in delta variant cases.

“Look, I really appreciate the presentation, and the data around case count. But I’m old enough to remember how this all started — when this all started, it was about flattening the curve. And the curve, you may recall, was about hospitalization rate and count. And all of a sudden we’re now focused on case count.  And I do believe the goalposts have shifted, and there hasn’t been an honest discussion about that,” Rouhanifard said.

Rouhanifard expressed disappointment in Governor Baker, saying that “tying this masking proposal to vaccination rates is just frankly really bad public policy.”

“I’m honestly genuinely surprised that this is being, you know, endorsed by our governor as an incentive for vaccination. Because I consider our governor and his administration to be really smart about technocratic policy solutions,” Rouhanifard said. “I want to voice that with some candor.”

Governor Baker appointed Rouhanifard, a former public schools official in New Jersey, to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in September 2019. Rouhanifard is a former strategy and innovation officer of Newark Public Schools and a former superintendent of the Camden City School District, as well as a former sixth grade teacher. He is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Propel America, which seeks to help poor young adults “access and affordable and quick pathway to a good job” by helping high schools, colleges, and employers offer them education, skills, and job placement.

Supporters of the policy did not directly address the arguments put forth by West and Rouhanifard.

Board member Matt Hills called supporting the policy “a pretty straightforward vote for me,” expressing confidence in elected officials and public health officials and supporting their call for reimposing masks.

“I think context is really important. It shouldn’t be remarkable, yet it seems to be remarkable, that we live in a state where not only we have an education commissioner but elected leadership – the governor, legislative leaders – have dealt with this whole pandemic for a year and a half in a fairly non-ideological way, and have been completely unafraid to pivot, to change, to not be prisoners of whatever they might have said a few months earlier or a year earlier,” Hills said (starting at 16:20 of the video). “So, I kind of look at this whole situation, and I say, ‘The leaders that we have, both selected, like our commissioners, and elected, have done exactly what we should want them to do, in moving us through this pandemic, which isn’t over yet’.” 

Hills, a former member of the Newton School Committee, is the managing director of a private equity firm. Governor Baker appointed Hills to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in March 2019.

The text of the motion for the masks mandate policyis as follows:


MOVED:        that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, in accordance with G.L. c. 69, § 1B, and consistent with 603 CMR 27.08(1), determines that exigent circumstances exist that adversely affect the ability of students to attend classes in a safe environment unless additional health and safety measures are put in place, and authorizes the Commissioner to require masks for public school students (age 5 and above) and staff in all grades through at least October 1, 2021


The roll call vote on the masks policy on Tuesday, August 24, 2021 went as follows (with Yes in red and No in blue):



Katherine Craven (board chairman)

James Morton (vice chairman)

Amanda Fernandez

Matt Hills

Darlene Lombos

Michael Moriarty

James Peyser (state secretary of education)

Mary Ann Stewart

Martin West




Paymon Rouhanifard


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