Expert Advisory Panel 4 recommends repeal of in-school mask mandate



Expert Advisory Panel 4 recommended the transition to a mask friendly environment. Students would theoretically have the option to either keep or remove their masks depending on personal preference.

Expert Advisory Panel 4: Health Safety and Logistics convened virtually via Zoom at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, March 4 to recommend the repeal of the mask mandate in the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) and movement towards a “mask-friendly”, where masks are left to individual preference, policy.

The recommendation of the panel comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its guidance for low-level communities. The CDC has removed masking from its recommended prevention measures for communities without a high risk of outbreak. However, those who exhibit symptoms, receive a positive test or are a close contact are still recommended to wear masks. These recommendations are also reflected in the updated Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) guidance.

The data from statewide sources and PSB show a general decrease in positive cases of COVID-19 from the winter surge of the Omicron variant. Trisha Laham, Coordinator of School Health Services, said school clinics are no longer facing the overwhelming numbers of cases they were during the spike.

“The clinics have been busy with their more normal kind of business this week and it’s not fully consumed by COVID-19 which feels like the first time in a long time,” Laham said.

Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory at the Boston Children’s Hospital Nira Pollock said while the positive rates are far better than at the peak of the Omicron spike, the levels have yet to completely reach the lows of the past summer.

“Still, these positivity rates are not lower than where we have been at earlier stages in this pandemic. It’s a definite decrease but we’re still sort of stabilizing it at a low, but similar prevalence to what we have seen in the last two years,” Pollock said.

According to Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University Amanda Tarullo, the effort to go “mask-friendly” and remove the mask mandate is influenced by concerns over the impact of masking on children learning language, mental health and social interaction. Tarullo said these issues are not solely impacted by masks, but the broader climate of the pandemic.

“Some of the rhetoric around mental health as the masks causing mental health problems, just isn’t backed up by evidence. For kids with either reading difficulties or expressive language difficulties, the masks can cause challenges,” Tarullo said.

Medical Director at MassHealth and pulmonary and critical care physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance Lakshman Swamy said the main aim of the recommendations from the panel is to reduce in-school transmission.

“I would say that the goal is not zero cases in school while contagious. The goal is minimal or no in-school transmission. I know it’s hard to say exactly when that’s happening, but those are two different things,” Swamy said.

Executive Director François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard Natalia Linos said masking guidance that regulates school environments and children should be considered carefully.

“Kids are a uniquely vulnerable group. We do need to think about it differently than adults and long COVID and what we don’t know about long COVID for me is concerning,” Linos said.

Swamy said the recommendation should include stipulations for specific situations in which masking would be prudent, such as large events.

“We need to be able to [be] flex[ible] with masks. It’s not just about tearing them off and throwing them away. It’s about knowing where [to wear them], an individual school or classroom or building,” Swamy said.

Pollock said weighing the different concerns about the masking policy changes from various groups across the community is important.

“Some people wanted it to end immediately. and other people are going to be very stressed by this change,” Pollock said. “Somewhere in the middle is a compromise that makes most people feel good.”