Two top federal health and education officials came to Boston Friday and said masks still have a vital role to play in keeping school buildings safe this fall.
Their message went further than the latest policy set by state education officials, which “strongly recommends” masks for unvaccinated students and staff but stops short of requiring them.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke at a town hall hosted by the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA of Greater Boston.
Walensky said the United States has a “rocky road ahead” due to the emergence of this coronavirus’s highly contagious delta variant — and with less than half of the population fully vaccinated.
Walensky, who previously served as chief of infectious disease at Mass. General Hospital, said she regrets that masks have become “politicized” in recent months.
“Coming up as a health care provider, I’ve masked so many times for so many reasons,” Walensky said. “This is about protecting one another and protecting ourselves.”
She reiterated that while the CDC cannot dictate policy at the state or local level, their current guidance is that “anybody who is entering the school — students, staff, teachers, visitors — be masked at all times in the school.”
Several Massachusetts school districts, including Boston, Springfield and Cambridge, plan to require students and staff wear masks indoors when classes resume in a few weeks.
Questioner Emily Rosa, a parent of two METCO students, said she’s “always respected teachers, but now I kneel down to 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 is sending billions both to rehabilitate school buildings and refill district coffers, but then brought it back to the fall’s safety challenges.
“We’re still talking about whether or not to wear masks in school in places that have high spread,” he said. “Please don’t tell me you appreciate teachers if you’re not willing to do what you have to do to keep them safe.”
Both Walensky and Cardona acknowledged the difficulty of continued vigilance — and the reality of “mask fatigue” — but described it as a small price to pay for safe and uninterrupted in-person learning.
In a note sent to Gov. Charlie Baker Friday, Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka sounded 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. “Wearing a mask around vulnerable populations, including unvaccinated children and others, is a small and simple action we can take to do this.”
But so far, the Baker administration hasn’t changed its position on masks in schools.
In the guidance published last week, education commissioner Jeff Riley wrote that the state’s high rates of vaccination and COVID-19’s relatively low risk to children “reinforce that many previously instituted COVID-19 mitigation measures in school settings are no longer necessary.”
In the past two weeks, the state has reported 1,819 new cases of COVID-19 among residents under age 19, and the CDC found in June that a rising number of adolescents hospitalized with symptoms of the disease — but none resulting in fatalities.
Baker spokesperson Anisha Chakrabarti noted Friday that very few fully vaccinated people have experienced severe illness from COVID-19. She described the state guidance recommending masks as “another step in Massachusetts’ return to the new normal, which is hugely important for young people and their education.”