NEW BEDFORD — The city’s public schools will lift the district’s indoor mask requirements and make COVID-19 face coverings optional beginning March 7, Superintendent Thomas Anderson announced in a letter to parents, guardians and caregivers today.
The move comes as Mayor Jon Mitchell eliminated a citywide mask requirement for municipal buildings, as of 4 p.m. today. When announcing his decision, Mitchell noted the rapid and sustained decline in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
Gov. Charlie Baker last week eliminated statewide school mask requirements, beginning Feb. 28.
In addition to removing the mask requirements, Anderson said the schools will be aligning COVID-19 testing procedures more closely with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Public Health.
“In lieu of the current in-school Test and Stay program, we will be participating in an at-home testing program that will help maximize testing for participating students and staff, despite their vaccination status,” Anderson said. “This at-home testing option will begin during the week of Feb. 28, and we will continue with school symptomatic testing for students who become ill during the school day,” he said.
The schools will no longer use the Test and Stay Program and will not conduct contact tracing for in-school close contacts, Anderson added. He said the new at-home testing option is voluntary, and parents must sign-up to receive the tests.
To receive the free antigen tests kits, parents or guardians must choose to participate in the at-home testing program by completing an opt-in form for each child by next Friday (Feb 25). The forms are available online at newbedfordschools.org, and parents can find more information by calling their school or the city’s Health Services Department at 508-997-4511, extension 14432.
Anderson said the decision to lift the schools’ mask requirement while also allowing their optional use came after evaluating multiple factors, “including virus transmission rates, vaccination information for eligible students and adults, and the impact on student social emotional well-being.”
He also said the schools will continue employing mitigation strategies, including cleaning and disinfecting, along with more than 900 air exchange units.
“Over the last few days, I have received consistent overwhelming feedback from parents, some students, and staff suggesting that we also lift the mask mandate,” Anderson said.
Waiting until March 7 will allow time to transition to the new testing program and provide additional days after the February holiday break, he explained. Positive COVID-19 test results have typically increased in the days following vacations and holidays, Anderson noted, and for that reason, the schoolwide mask mandate will be lifted at the end of the day on Friday, March 4.
Masks must be worn on school buses and in health offices, as federal guidelines still require all individuals to wear masks while on school buses, and state guidelines still require all individuals to wear masks while in health offices. Otherwise, “beginning Monday, March 7, mask wearing will become optional for all New Bedford Public Schools students and staff,” Andeson said.
“I do highly encourage those unvaccinated individuals with compromised immune systems to continue wearing their masks,” he said.
During first week in March, after students return from February break, schools will address any increase in positive COVID cases and transition the health department team to the new testing process.
“There will be some students and staff who personally choose to continue wearing a mask, Anderson noted. “I request that we support one another and understand that some individuals are working through personal situations where COVID has impacted their family members, friends or themselves,” he said.
“Now is a time to be supportive and understanding — let’s please be respectful of those who choose to continue wearing a mask during the school day.”
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