In the wake of updated CDC guidance recommending vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike wear masks in school, Lexington Public Schools are likely to embrace universal masking this fall. (Courtesy of Julie Hackett)

Following an update to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for vaccinated people on Tuesday, Lexington Public Schools are far more likely to support universal masking in Lexington Public Schools this fall, according to Superintendent Julie Hackett. Masking would apply to all students and all staff, including teachers and administrators. 

In a major reversal of the July 9 guidance, the CDC stated that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas with “substantial or high” COVID-19 transmission — where there are 50 or more cases per 100,000 people recorded. But, the CDC also recommended that masks should be worn in schools everywhere, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission rates. The new guidance was triggered by alarming new evidence about transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant even among fully vaccinated individuals.

“The CDC guidance most definitely does sway us toward universal mask-wearing,” Hackett wrote in a message to LexObserver on Thursday. She will send an update to the LPS community “soon,” she added, but wrote that there is “still more to work on before I’m ready to announce anything.”

Lexington Board of Health Chair Wendy Heiger-Bernays expressed staunch support for the new guidance. “I absolutely support universal mask-wearing in the schools,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver on Thursday. “Too many unvaccinated students and too risky not to mask – we want children in school!”

“The CDC guidance most definitely does sway us toward universal mask-wearing.”

— Superintendent Julie Hackett

Prior to the CDC’s update, School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan testified at a hearing on Monday before the Joint Committee on Public Health and the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management on plans to vaccinate children 12 and under. In her testimony, which also emphasized the importance of vaccine preparedness and proactivity, she urged the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to release guidance aligning with the American Academy of Pediatrics by requiring masks for all students throughout Massachusetts. 

“I can’t overstate how important guidance on masking is, almost as important as a vaccination strategy,” she said. “To let local school districts go [at] it alone to face people opposed to masks, still one of the best mitigation tools we have, would be irresponsible.” 

Massachusetts does not currently require masks in schools. At a June 22 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting in Malden, some Massachusetts parents testified and others interrupted the meeting, all asking the state to prevent individual districts from requiring masks by stripping school districts of the power to do so. Parents have also protested against masks at multiple previous BESE meetings.

“Now that the CDC has come out with the same recommendation, that should make it even clearer that we need staff and students to wear masks,” Lenihan wrote Thursday in an email to LexObserver.

Though Governor Baker has stressed that Massachusetts is in a better position than the “vast majority” of states in its COVID-19 metrics — better than every state except Vermont in its high vaccination rates and low hospitalization rates — he is still considering mandating masks in the state’s public schools this fall, the Boston Globe reported Thursday. 

Some districts took action on their own even before the updated CDC guidance; on July 22, Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced that Boston Public Schools students would be required to wear masks this fall.

Hackett, Lenihan and Heiger-Bernays had already expressed support for requiring masks for unvaccinated students, and for requiring them for vaccinated students under some circumstances, LexObserver previously reported.

A total of 72% of Massachusetts residents have at least one vaccine dose, and 64% are fully vaccinated. But the state has seen a 240% increase in COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days, and a 54% increase in hospitalizations over the same period, according to the New York Times. On Tuesday, 598 new, confirmed cases were reported, while there were 163 people hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the Massachusetts Department of Health.

In Middlesex County, vaccination numbers are slightly higher than the state average. As of Thursday, 65.7% of the county population were fully vaccinated, while 72.3% of residents had at least one dose, according to the CDC. Transmission is rated as moderate for Middlesex County by the CDC; there were 43.62 cases recorded per 100,000 residents on average over the last seven days. But in neighboring Suffolk County, there were 66.43 cases per 100,000 residents over the same period, so risk there is rated “substantial” by the CDC— one tier higher than Middlesex. Heiger-Bernays previously stressed that case numbers in Suffolk matter as well as Middlesex for LPS because it is where many teachers live and parents work.

A total of five cases were recorded in Lexington last week, up from three the week before, and 0 for three weeks straight previously.

Lexington parents expressed mixed reactions to the prospect of universal masking in LPS this fall. 

Tania Dutta is the mother of a rising 7th grader and rising 3rd grader at LPS; her husband is immunocompromised and at higher risk from COVID-19. While stressing the importance of returning to in-person school, she would prefer all students wear masks, though she thought they could take breaks from masks if local cases are low and vaccination rates are high. “I’m hoping they continue to mask or at least mandate vaccines,” she said of LPS this fall. “From looking back at the decisions that [were] made by the superintendent, I think she’ll make the right choices of what is safe for people,” she added. “If they can get things back to normal just by leaving masks on, I hope they do.”

“If they can get things back to normal just by leaving masks on, I hope they do.”

— Tania Dutta, LPS parent

Alexia Duc, whose rising 8th grader and rising 11th grader have both attended LPS since 2019, previously expressed support for unvaccinated students wearing masks but vaccinated students going without, unless local case numbers spike. Following the new CDC guidance, she expressed some uncertainty. “I am still confused … regarding this new data from the CDC suggesting that the viral load in infected vaccinated people leads to the same level of infectiousness as with unvaccinated… Without hard data, this assumption is leading to consequential decisions that become quite controversial,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. 

Sacha Uljon, mother of a rising 4th grader at LPS, is “happy with masking indoors,” as is her husband Daniel Debowy, she wrote in an email to LexObserver. 

“The CDC and AAP are (correctly?) assuming that people won’t be 100% honest about whether or not they are vaccinated, and even if they were it would be very difficult to have some people mask and others not, so it does seem prudent to mask everyone regardless,” she wrote. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s sad to see because it reminds us we are not out of the woods yet, though.”

Adriana Bokel has a rising 10th grader in LPS and transferred her rising 7th grader from LPS to private school for the 2021-22 school year. Even with the new CDC guidance, “I would hope parents can make this decision on behalf of their kids and that vaccinated kids can be without masks,” she wrote in a message to LexObserver.

Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis had already expressed support for universal masking in Lexington Public Schools, and continues to support it following the new guidance, she wrote in an email to LexObserver. 

“I expect that the kids are going to come to the building every day and will be with their whole classes,” she wrote. “Masking seems like a small price to pay to make that happen.”

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