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School officials weigh mask mandate

by Judith Hruz
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) issued a statement Feb. 22 saying that students and staff are still required to wear masks in schools and offices despite the county relaxing its mask mandate and the Maryland State Department of Education voting to rescind its emergency mask mandate.
“A decision about masks in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) will be reviewed and made in the near future,” MCPS said in the statement.
MCPS had planned to provide an update on all COVID-19 mitigation strategies to the Board of Education at its Feb. 24 business meeting, which was after The Greater Olney News press time.
The Montgomery County Board of Health requirement that masks be worn in all public places was rescinded as of midnight Feb. 22.
The decision for wearing masks in state public school systems, however, falls under the auspices of the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). Although the MSDE on Feb. 22 voted 12 to 2 to rescind its emergency mask mandate, a joint legislative committee must approve the decision and determine what date the mandate would be lifted statewide.
That vote was expected to come Feb. 25, after press time.
If the legislative committee approved the MSDE decision, local school districts will have the ability to make an independent decision about mask mandates.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) officials told the County Council on Feb. 15 that school officials were still weighing a decision on whether to lift the mask mandate.
“No decisions have been made just yet regarding changes to the mask requirement in all MCPS facilities,” James D’Andrea, the school system’s chief of staff, said.
During a media briefing the next day, county health officials said they will provide data and information and make recommendations to MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight and other school officials, but the school system will decide whether to lift the mask mandate.
Dr. James Bridgers, acting county health officer, said officials want to make sure it is a “safe and equitable transition” from wearing masks to not wearing them, and consider children with chronic illnesses and who are immunocompromised.
The Maryland Board of Education said it would allow a local school board to lift its mask mandate if 80 percent of the population of the surrounding county has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or if a county’s COVID transmission rates are low or moderate for 14 consecutive days.
Montgomery County vaccination rate is just shy of 85 percent and it had moved into the substantial transmission rate, a step above moderate, in mid-February.
Citing improving health metrics in the state, Gov. Larry Hogan had urged the State Board of Education to rescind its school masking policy.
He said the pandemic “has been perhaps most difficult and disruptive for our children.”
But Montgomery County officials have said that although the number of cases has decreased since the beginning of January, when a surge in numbers caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19 saw cases soar higher than at any time during the pandemic, the numbers are still too high.
D’Andrea said that when students leave for Spring Break — April 11-15 and April 18 — they will be given rapid tests to take home and use prior to returning to classes on April 19.
He said it was “one key measure” of the COVID-19 cases during the winter break because tests were not readily available.

After press time, it was learned that the Montgomery County Board of Education is scheduled to decide on March 8 on wearing masks in schools.

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