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Massachusetts revises its sweeping mask mandates for schools

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

For months, the state of Massachusetts has had its sweeping mask mandates for schools, but this week it allowed communities to lift them. Not every school is ready for that just yet, but Eric Conti, superintendent of the Burlington Public Schools, is now seeing maskless faces in his schools for the first time in a long time. Superintendent, welcome to the show.

ERIC CONTI: Thank you very much. Good morning.

MARTINEZ: Now, your district made the change at the start of the week. What's it like now with those mask mandates lifted?

CONTI: It's really felt like the first day of school. It's been really exciting. And to see kids walking around, see any of our educators who want to be masked or unmasked teaching, it just has felt like a return to normal.

MARTINEZ: One of the things you see, though, when those little faces don't have the masks, you see their noses and if they're runny (laughter) or not. Anybody worried or anybody maybe concerned about what that all might mean?

CONTI: I'm sure there's some concern. There's an adjustment. But we're used to runny noses. It's actually been funny. One of our first-grade teachers commented to me that a lot of students are showing their teachers all the teeth they've lost in the time that they were wearing masks.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

CONTI: And one of them even said to her teacher that even without her mask, she looks the same from behind. So I thought that was great.

MARTINEZ: That's true. That is true. What about parents? How have parents adjusted?

CONTI: Well, again, we're mask optional. We're - we didn't - so I think we're asking parents if they want their child to be in a mask that we will honor that, and if they want them maskless, honestly, then they can do that as well. We've spent a lot of time prior to going to mask optional working with our students, especially our younger students, to tell them that their friends may be in a mask, their friends may not be in a mask, and both - everyone is still following the rules and doing what they should.

MARTINEZ: What are some maybe immediate changes that you have noticed?

CONTI: Well, I think a real positive for me is none of us in the district are public health experts, but we're starting to get back to practices where we have some expertise. So I think the most immediate thing for me was - we had to make a lot of educational compromises, what we know as best practice, in order to implement protocols that made our classrooms safer. So what we're seeing now is a return to what we know to be best practice for kids. And again, an example of that might be small-group instruction at the elementary level, having a morning meeting on the carpet to start a class, having the kids, you know, interact more, do more group work, get away from individual desks in rows, get back to what we know works best.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, it's that intimacy level - right? - that a teacher and a student can have that makes learning a lot more effective.

CONTI: Well, it's - learning doesn't happen without those relationships, so that's what I'd say.

MARTINEZ: And, you know, some Massachusetts school districts chose not to lift mask mandates. What have some of those superintendents shared with you about their decisions?

CONTI: Well, every context is different. So I respect their decisions. Many of them, the school districts, are in communities that have a townwide or a city-based mask requirement for indoors in place until the middle of March. And I think what they are doing is working together with their town government or with their municipality to move away from the mask requirement together. In Burlington, our community did not have a mask requirement for indoors. So the school had the flexibility and the opportunity to eliminate the mask requirement and not sort of be out of step with the town government.

MARTINEZ: What's your advice for other superintendents who might be weighing next steps?

CONTI: Don't listen to me. That's always my advice to my colleagues, is...

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

CONTI: No. We all work together. We're a great collaborative group. And then I know even within their communities, within Burlington, I have great support from our board of health, great support from all of our educators - so really worked through this together. I don't think any of my colleagues - we all have had a crash course in public health, but I think we're just - we - my advice is don't go into this alone. Make sure that you're relying on your colleagues and relying on others. And again, we've had great support from our state, from our Department of Education. Our commissioner in particular has been really out in front on a lot of these issues.

MARTINEZ: We all just listened to you, Eric, for five minutes. Eric Conti is the superintendent of the Burlington Public Schools. Eric, thank you.

CONTI: You got it. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.