A WEEK AFTER state education officials approved a temporary mask mandate in public schools, a separate state board will be asked to approve a mask mandate for staff and children over age five in early education settings.
Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy announced that she will ask the Board of Early Education and Care at a meeting on Tuesday to mandate masks indoors for all staff and children over five in all childcare and after-school care sites licensed by the Department of Early Education and Care. While most childcare programs serve children under five, the department licenses after-school programs for elementary school-aged children.
“Implementing masking requirements, providing [personal protective equipment], and encouraging vaccination are important measures to keep young children, their families, and caregivers healthy,” Education Secretary James Peyser said in a statement.
The mask mandate would apply to all adults entering a childcare facility – teachers, administrators, aides, parents, and maintenance staff.
For children, masks would be required for those five and older. For two to four-year-olds who are able to appropriately wear and handle masks, mask use would be “strongly encouraged” at the discretion of their family. Children under two would not wear face coverings, unless explicitly requested by their parent.
Individuals would not have to wear masks outdoors, or indoors while eating or drinking. Children would be able to remove their masks while napping. Individuals who have a medical or behavioral health reason why masking is unsafe or difficult for them would be exempt from the order.
If transportation is provided to a childcare center, all students over two will be required to wear face coverings under a federal order.
William Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, which represents childcare programs that accept public subsidies, said the proposed policies are similar to what was in place last year. Eddy said the association supports the proposal, which he said represents best practices in mask wearing – requiring staff and older children to wear masks, while being more flexible with younger children, who have a harder time wearing them.
Kids in childcare facilities are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19. While Pfizer and Moderna are testing their vaccines on children, the next age group for which shots are expected to be approved is ages 5 to 11, and approval for those younger than five would come later.
Unlike in K-12 schools, where the new state mask mandate is temporary — in place until October 1, after which schools with 80 percent vaccination rates can drop the mandate for vaccinated individuals — the early education mandate is indefinite.
So far, neither the state nor federal governments have imposed a vaccination mandate for educators, including early educators.
A number of colleges and universities, both public and private, are requiring vaccines for students and staff.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Boston Teachers Union have both come out in support of vaccine requirements for public school teachers.
Eddy noted that early educators are somewhat different because they are generally private employees and non-unionized, unlike teachers in colleges and in the K-12 system. That said, the state and federal governments have mandated vaccines for nursing home employees, who also generally work for private companies.
Eddy said the association has not taken a position on whether vaccines should be mandated for early education staff. “We’re waiting to see what the Commonwealth recommends, and we’ll go from there,” he said. He did note that the early education field was already experiencing severe worker shortages pre-pandemic – which have only worsened with COVID-19. So losing workers due to a vaccine mandate could cause additional problems.
Aigner-Treworgy said she will also on Tuesday seek permission to write policies intended to streamline requirements that create hiring barriers for child care programs. She did not say specifically what requirements she is seeking to change, but said a more detailed proposal would be forthcoming in September.
“EEC is committed to addressing barriers to help childcare programs increase their workforce and help more families get back to work by accessing childcare that works for them,” Aigner-Treworgy said in a statement.
The state is continuing to offer childcare facilities the opportunity to order personal protective equipment with free delivery to their program. Centers can request a mobile vaccination clinic to administer vaccines to staff. The state is funding free COVID testing for early educators and free pooled testing – weekly surveillance testing – to staff and children.