Mask mandate reaching into early education

  • Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker AP FILE PHOTO/CHARLES KRUPA

State House News Service
Published: 8/30/2021 2:13:32 PM

BOSTON — Consistent with the new mask-wearing rules in public schools, the Baker administration will seek permission Tuesday to impose a mask mandate for all staff and children age 5 and older enrolled in state-licensed pre-kindergarten, after-school and other early education programs.

The policy would look similar to what Education Commissioner Jeff Riley rolled out last week for students, faculty and staff in K-12 public schools, which requires that anyone over the age of 5 must wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccination status through at least Oct. 1.

The Board of Early Education and Care will hold a special meeting Tuesday morning to consider the request to give Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy the authority to implement the new masking policy in early education centers.

Aigner-Treworgy will also ask the board for the authority to modify educator qualifications and professional development requirements, and take other administrative measures that will make it easier to hire teachers and respond to a workforce shortage that is limiting families’ access to early education options, officials said.

“EEC is committed to addressing barriers to help child care programs increase their workforce and help more families get back to work by accessing child care that works for them,” Aigner-Treworgy said in a statement.

“We fully recognize the critical importance of doing all we can to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on child care and on the health and safety of families.”

The policy, if approved, would require adults in EEC facilities to be masked at all times, unless outside, including parents at pickup and dropoff. The EEC policy bulletin notes that by federal public health order, all children over the age of 2 and staff are required to wear masks on child care transportation.

The administration also said children age 2 to 4 who can “safely and appropriately wear, remove, and handle face masks” should be “strongly encouraged” to wear one. No students would be required to wear a mask while eating or sleeping, and exemptions would be available for physical and behavioral health conditions that might make wearing a mask unsafe.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 9-1 last week to allow Riley to impose an indoor school mask mandate for students, teachers and staff, regardless of vaccination status, though the public school order only runs through Oct. 1 for now, when middle and high schools may be able to lift the requirements if they have at least an 80% vaccination rate.

The EEC policy, as drafted, would take effect Sept. 7 and does not appear to have an expiration date or vaccination rate trigger to relax the mask requirements.

Vaccines are not currently available for children under 12.

Although the Department of Early Education and Care does not track enrollment or the ages of children participating in early education programs, the administration said that as of June 6 there were 209,102 slots at licensed facilities across the state.

In addition to center and family-based day care programs, the policy will apply to licensed after-school programs run for children age 5 through 13 at community facilities such as the YMCA.

In addition to the masking rule, Aigner-Treworgy plans to seek permission to make it easier for early education programs to hire teachers, citing “significant workforce challenges” across the sector.

The commissioner will present her full plan to the board at its Sept. 14 meeting, according to officials, but her recommendations could include steps such as using early childhood continuing education units in place of credit courses and finding other ways to be flexible with respect to experience requirements to increase hiring.

The high volume of employers seeking workers and the unpredictability of enrollment trends as COVID-19 infection rates have waxed and waned have made hiring in early education settings a challenge, according to people involved in the industry.

The availability of new federal aid is expected to help the situation at many programs, with $314 million available through the American Rescue Plan Act. That funding began to go out to EEC programs last Friday.

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