BOSTON — Teachers, staff and many students at day care centers and after-school programs will be required to wear masks indoors after Labor Day, but Education Secretary Jim Peyser on Tuesday told the board that licenses early education providers that a vaccine mandate may be out of their control.
The Board of Early Education and Care voted unanimously to align its masking policies for programs under its oversight with those being deployed in K-12 public schools as children across Massachusetts return to in-person learning over the next couple of weeks.
Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy requested and received the permission to implement the masking policy across the early education sector as COVID-19 cases fueled by the spread of the delta variant continue to rise, and have been recorded in early education settings.
While the chair of the board said the "best line of defense" remains getting as many teachers and staff as possible vaccinated, Aigner-Treworgy said the decision to return to mask wearing stemmed from the trends in COVID-19 transmission and a desire to be consistent for children who may attend school and after-school programs in various districts.
"With schools reopening in the weeks ahead and the action by (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) board, we really are asking you all to come together today to recognize the COVID-19 crisis continues to challenge families and providers," Aigner-Treworgy said during an emergency board meeting on Tuesday morning.
All employees and children age 5 and older enrolled in state-licensed day care, after-school and out-of-school programs will be required to wear masks indoors beginning Sept. 7, and younger children between the ages of 2 and 5 who can "safely and appropriately wear, remove, and handle face masks" will be "strongly encouraged" to wear one.
The policy applies to adults regardless of vaccination status, and does not have an expiration date. The EEC policy 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.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who held a press conference shortly before the vote, said he agreed with the department's approach.
"I think they're viewing that at this point in time as an appropriate measure as, you know, school starts and as people start incorporating more of those early ed programs into their daily lives, I think it makes sense," Baker said.
The board also voted to give Aigner-Treworgy the authority to relax some of the early education teacher credentialing policies to increase the pipeline of people willing to take jobs in day care and after-school programs.
Aigner-Treworgy said she will present a formal plan to the board at its Sept. 14 meeting, but described the relaxed protocols under consideration as changes that would be temporary and would not detract from the health and safety standards.
"What we're hearing is that even as people think about compensation and addressing benefits, that it is a hard sell for people to come back into a workforce during a health crisis and be able to play this critical role for the commonwealth, but also accommodate their own needs around child care and their personal needs as they step back into the workforce," Aigner-Treworgy said.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser told several of the board members that should COVID-19 conditions reach the point where the board wanted to consider a vaccine mandate for early education teachers and staff, an order from the Department of Public Health would probably be required to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations.
Peyser said many of these private employers may choose to implement vaccine policies on their own, and EEC board Chair Nonie Lesaux said "there may be a moment when the data suggests we absolutely owe it to the children."
"Foremost, we want to encourage vaccine uptake among the adults who are with children, obviously," Lesaux said. "That is our best line of defense at this moment while our youngest children in particular are not able to be vaccinated."
The department does not track the ages of students enrolled in EEC-licensed programs, but Aigner-Treworgy said the majority of enrollees are under 12 and therefore ineligible at this time for a vaccine.
The commission said that over the past two weeks more than 150 towns have reported an instance of COVID-19 in a family care setting, and 1,300 group and center-based programs had had an incident.
Though more than 900 clinics are in operation and early education providers can request an onsite mobile vaccination unit through a state-run portal, Lesaux said conversations with Peyser, Aigner-Treworgy, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Health are ongoing about ways to improve vaccination rates among teachers and families with children enrolled in early education programs.
"We'll keep in touch on that initiative as it further unfolds," she said.
While teachers unions have expressed interest in a vaccine mandate for school employees, Baker has suggested that those decisions must be made locally where officials are in charge of collective bargaining with teachers and staff.
Aigner-Treworgy said the child care sector is also different because many of the providers are private employers whose businesses operate with the tuition revenues paid by parents.
While officials said 90 percent of early education providers have reopened since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing remains a challenge.
Aigner-Treworgy said the department will continue its subsidy policy of paying based on enrollment and not attendance in order to not "penalize" families who choose to keep their children at home at any point due to the pandemic.
The commissioner said 75 percent of providers also applied for grants from the $314 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds designated for Massachusetts early childhood education providers, and those monthly aid payments began arriving for thousands of providers on Monday.