BOSTON — Students attending public schools will be required to wear masks for at least another month, regardless of their vaccination status.
The mandate, which was originally approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by a 9-1 vote in August, will require public school students ages 5 and older, staff and educators to wear masks indoors through Feb. 28.
The masking requirements, which have been extended several times, were set to expire Saturday. Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the extension is needed to prevent further spread of COVID-19, in light of rising case numbers attributed to the highly contagious omicron variant.
Schools are allowed to lift the rules for vaccinated students and staff if at least 80% are vaccinated, though only two dozen schools have qualified. Unvaccinated students and staff will still be required to mask up. The state also encourages children younger than 5 to wear masks.
The latest extension of the masking requirements for schools comes amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations following the holiday break.
On Monday, the state Department of Public Health reported 60,986 new COVID-19 infections and 53 deaths related to the virus over the weekend.
The seven-day average of positive COVID-19 tests has skyrocketed to more than 22%, according to the state agency.
More than 2,900 people remain hospitalized with the virus, with about 430 of them in intensive care.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s latest data shows more than 51,000 positive COVID-19 cases were reported among students and staff in public schools during the week of Dec. 23 to Jan. 5. That’s more than five times higher than the previous one week period, the agency reported.
Baker has been under pressure to extend the mask mandate for schools and set one for the general public and take other aggressive COVID-19 precautions.
State lawmakers are considering proposals to require masks indoors for children ages 2 and older in K-12 schools and childcare facilities through June 30.
The bill, which is backed by two dozen Democratic lawmakers, would also allow students to take unexcused absences to get tested or vaccinated, and provide parents with up to six hours paid leave to get their children vaccinated.
But the plan to extend the masking requirements has its share of critics, who say government mandates to prevent spread of the virus over the past two years have negatively impacted students.
Many schools are struggling to meet the state’s requirements to ease the masking rules, which some say set an unrealistic benchmark.
Teachers unions favor keeping the masking restrictions in place and have called for allowing districts to go back to remote learning amid the latest surge.