Photo courtesy of Ethan Schenker
MCPS will require all students, staff members and visitors to wear face coverings in school buildings this fall, regardless of vaccination status, Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight announced at a July 27 county Board of Education meeting.
The Interim Superintendent attributed the decision to the recent countywide rise in COVID-19 cases, the high transmissibility of the Delta virus strain and limited vaccine eligibility. McKnight told the Board that approximately half of MCPS students are under age 12, making them ineligible for the vaccine.
Students will have to wear masks on school buses in addition to academic buildings. However, the face coverings will remain optional in outdoor settings.
School district officials will regularly reassess the mandate based on shifts in key COVID-19 metrics.
The mask requirement aligns with recent guidance from both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend the continued use of face coverings in schools.
“I think we made the right call today to start school with masks mandated indoors,” said Board of Education member Lynne Harris. “I was happy to see the school system actually be willing to step out and make a call, just based on the best available data from CDC and from our health department.”
In the weeks prior to MCPS’ decision, a potential mask requirement was the subject of intense debate among numerous parents, educators and students, many of whom testified to the Board about their beliefs. Some community members maintained that compulsory face coverings were imperative, considering the health risks that the Delta variant poses to unvaccinated children. In contrast, one parent argued to the Board on Tuesday that a mask requirement would be “a vain attempt to protect [students] from a statistically non-existent threat.”
“Masks can be uncomfortable, and we have a lot of pushback from certain parents and even student groups about it,” said Student Member of the Board Hana O’Looney. “But I think at the end of the day, student health, wellness and safety come first, before everything else.”
Not all community members agree with the Board’s decision to implement a uniform mask requirement among K-12 students since all high schoolers are eligible to receive the vaccine. Some feel that MCPS shouldn’t require vaccinated high school students to wear masks because peers will likely expose themselves to each other outside of academic buildings, limiting the effectiveness of an in-school mandate.
“I feel that the county should have made masks optional for those vaccinated in high school, since the kids are most likely seeing each other, and all high schoolers are eligible for the vaccine,” rising junior Lucas Resnik said.
Others said they believe that the countywide policy is necessary for MCPS to protect parents, students and staff members with differing health and familial circumstances.
“With the rising cases, and students having siblings, or staff having children who may not have had the opportunity to be vaccinated yet, I feel that the BOE made the decision looking at the whole picture versus individual schools,” 11th grade administrator Kristi McAleese wrote in an email to the Black & White.
McKnight emphasized in her presentation to the Board that students will return to some sense of “normal school” in the fall, even with the mask mandate. All schedules, bell times, extracurriculars and physical distancing measures will return to normal, allowing students to interact with all of their peers in person for the first time in nearly 18 months.
“You are still able to have really genuine, face-to-face — even if half of it is covered — interactions with other students that are really valuable,” O’Looney said. “Especially for so many students who are coming off of over a year of digital learning, just being in person is going to make a huge difference.”