For the first time in about a year, students and staff in Worcester schools are no longer required to wear masks.
The Worcester Board of Health voted 4-0 Monday night to end the city’s school mask mandate, citing a continued drop in COVID-19 cases among students and a desire to make mask-wearing in schools optional. The decision applies immediately to all public, private, parochial and charter schools in the city.
“The masks were never intended to be forever,” Board of Health member Gary Rosen said at the meeting. “There comes a time when you take a look at a decision you’ve made in the past and you say, ‘It was right then. But maybe it’s not right now.’”
Students and staff had been required to wear masks since the district reopened for in-person instruction in spring 2021. Worcester Board of Health members on Monday stressed that students should continue to wear masks if they feel safer doing so.
The vote came a week after the expiration of a statewide school mask mandate, giving localities the power to decide whether to end school masking requirements. Dozens of Massachusetts communities have since made masks optional in schools. Boston, Cambridge and Springfield are among several cities and towns that still require students and staff wear masks.
Worcester city and school officials waited to consider rescinding the city's school mask mandate because of concerns that COVID-19 cases would rise among students after the February school vacation. During the Board of Health meeting, city health officials said that increase did not occur. In fact, case counts among students have continued to decrease — from 309 around the end of January to just 41 in the beginning of March.
“The community level of disease right now is low enough that we are not concerned that there’s great risk for the kids getting COVID if they are unmasked,” said Worcester Medical Director Michael Hirsh, who recommended the board end the mask mandate.
Worcester’s director of health and human services, director of public health and head of the Educational Association of Worcester union also endorsed the decision.
“Educators should have the choice. It should be their choice to wear masks or not,” Roger Nugent, the president of the teachers’ union, told GBH News.
Despite the unanimous vote, several Board of Health members expressed concern that some students could be bullied if they choose to continue wearing masks. They also noted that just 34% of Worcester Public School students have received two COVID-19 vaccine doses, and unvaccinated students are disproportionately from communities of color.
In response, health officials said the school district plans to be on heightened alert for any cases of bullying. Hirsh added that schools are expanding targeted vaccination efforts but struggling to obtain consent from parents. He said one potential solution could be to reach out to parents and tell them more about the benefits of vaccinating their children.
“It’s a very hard nut to crack,” Hirsh said. “We will need help from the medical community, parent-teachers associations. We’re going to need everyone to pitch in to try to get more vaccinations done.”