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Officials urge caution on COVID

BPHC recommends masking after holidays

Isaiah Thompson

Public health experts, teachers and families of Boston area students are calling for increased public health measures — namely, heightened masking practices, especially in schools — as the region sees increased rates of COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), as students, teachers and staff prepare to return to schools after the holidays.

Among questions that remained unanswered as of press time was whether Boston Public Schools will implement new, if temporary, district-wide masking measures.

In a message sent to BPS parents last week, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper noted that last year’s holiday season saw a significant surge in COVID-19 cases that resulted in staffing shortages and student absences. She said the district is considering a temporary masking mandate.

“We will continue to meet with the Boston Public Health Commission to discuss any possible changes to our COVID protocols, such as a temporary masking mandate for the first two weeks of school after the break,” wrote Skipper.

On the same day, the Boston Public Health Commission issued an advisory “strongly” recommending that residents adopt safe practices around air-borne disease over the holiday season, noting that the level of COVID-19 virus in local wastewater remains “high,” that individual PCR testing for COVID-19 was up 11% over the prior two weeks, and that new COVID hospital admissions had risen 72% over the same period.

The rising numbers, along with an expected further surge in cases as residents, and especially students, return from holidays, have led some BPS families to call on the school district and Mayor Michelle Wu to announce new safety policies, especially around masking.

“We are hoping to hear that the mayor and BPS have decided that it makes sense to institute a 10-day post-holiday-break masking period, which we have been asking them for and advocating for for some time,” said Krista Magnuson, a member of BPS Families for COVID Safety.

“You can look at that rise [last year] in cases in the post-Thanksgiving period,” Magnuson said. “We can look at that and see that it does, in fact, rise when students and faculty and staff travel.”

Dr. Cassandra Pierre, associate hospital epidemiologist and medical director of public health at Boston Medical Center, agrees with calls for extra precautions right now, including for the general public.

“We absolutely see an increase in the number of infections, of people coming in from the community getting tested and being positive,” for COVID as well as other respiratory illnesses, Pierre told the Banner, adding that hospital capacity remains tight. 

Pierre, who is also a parent of two young BPS students, supports additional masking mandates as students and staff return to schools.

“Unfortunately, this is absolutely something I can attest to, and many other parents can, that happens very quickly after the holidays, is kids falling like dominoes and transmitting to one another.” 

“We know from prior studies and from [a recent study of Massachusetts schools] that masks work,” said Pierre. “And that is really important — it’s important for the kids to get their education, it’s important for the parents to not have to think about, ‘Do I have enough sick days? Do I have enough time off work to actually spend time with a kid who is sick?’”

The Boston Teachers Union, meanwhile, is echoing calls for district and city officials to take action ahead of the return to schools.

“Our nurses in particular are very concerned about the uptick in numbers and its impact not just on students and families, but also on staff, and on staffing shortages as well,” BTU president Jessica Tang told the Banner.

“The research has shown that the masking does work,” said Tang, “and again, it’s not just about COVID at this point, it’s about the other respiratory illnesses as well.”

Tang noted that at the same time, some BTU members are voicing concerns over potential masking mandates when it comes to early learners and special needs students. She said members would likely support masking exceptions for students with special needs.

Tang said her union remains in conversation with the school district as officials consider next steps.

BPS officials declined to comment beyond sharing the Dec. 22 letter sent to BPS families; the Boston mayor’s press office did not respond directly to a request for comment.

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