After discussion, comment and a forced recess Wednesday, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education announced that it will vote Sept. 1 on whether to make mask-wearing in schools optional this year.
Board member Corine Frank made a motion to give staff, students and parents the choice of not wearing a mask, and ultimately a motion was approved to continue that discussion to the board’s next scheduled meeting.
Earlier this month, citing the advice of health officials, Superintendent George Arlotto announced that all students and staff will need to wear a mask in school, regardless of vaccination status. The same went for employees, contractors and visitors to the central office: A mask is required if the person is in proximity of someone else.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first held by the board since that announcement was made. Arlotto can make operational decisions without the board.
The meeting started as open to the public, but quickly devolved.
After about an hour, a recess was called after several adults in the audience refused to wear a face mask, contrary to the rules Arlotto announced.
Two of the seven members of the board were not wearing a face mask, prompting members of the audience to ask why they needed to wear a mask if the officials at the podium weren’t.
Frank, who was not wearing a mask, asked the audience to follow the superintendent’s order.
“Those rules are different for different people by design,” Frank said.
Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said the board has received legal advice that Arlotto’s decision isn’t binding for the board.
Board President Melissa Ellis said if members of the audience wouldn’t wear a face mask, they would have to go into recess. When people continued to refuse to comply, the board left the room and the room was cleared by more than a dozen security officers.
About 30 minutes later schools Mosier announced that the meeting would continue virtually, with only people preregistered for public comment allowed inside the board room. The public and media were barred from reentry and told to watch the meeting online.
Board member Dana Schallheim attempted to force her colleagues to wear masks during the meeting through a motion, which ultimately failed.
“This is not a cubicle. There isn’t plexiglass around us, despite my request it should be. We share the air in this room,” she said.
Michelle Corkadel, one of two members not wearing a mask during the meeting, said she was complying with the superintendent’s request as she was not close to anyone, sitting at her seat at the dais. She said she puts her mask on when she leaves the dais.
Frank said she has decided not to wear a mask based on her medical history and the end of the state mandate.
“I believe that parents and students should have this freedom and I will lead by example,” she said.
Dozens of people held signs on the road outside the Anne Arundel County Board of Education building Wednesday. On one side of the roadway to the building’s parking lot, those protesting a mask mandate at county schools waved signs to passersby as others on the other side of the roadway waved signs encouraging the requirement.
Sign holders on both sides had arrived hours before the meeting so board members could see the signs as they arrived.
Pasadena resident Amy Willey, who has a student in the school system, held up a sign that read, “My child, my choice,” as cars passed by on Riva Road. She said she was unable to get a spot to speak during public comment at the board meeting but has sent emails to the school system expressing frustration.
“If people want to wear the mask, then wear a mask,” Willey said.
On the other side of the road entering the parking lot for the school system’s building, County Council member Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis, was with a handful of others right before the meeting holding signs emphasizing safety. Hours earlier, closer to 50 people were there holding signs supporting mask requirements.
Rodvien’s sign read, “Keep my school safe.” In her day job as a middle school teacher, she said, she normally has 35 to 40 students in a class and, because of their age range, some are able to be vaccinated against the coronavirus but the younger children in her class aren’t.
“We want to make sure schools can stay open,” she said, also noting that by mandating masks, vulnerable family members at home are more protected.
Arlotto announced at the beginning of August that students, teachers, staff and visitors will need to wear masks again inside county school buildings. The Board of Education broke from a recess following the announcement to discuss the mandate.
The mask announcement followed similar decisions by the state’s largest school systems and the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that students wear masks indoors this school year to prevent the spread of the delta variant.
Davidsonville resident Alan McIntyre, who has grandchildren in the school system, was among those with signs outside the meeting. He said he was there because he and others want to be able to make decisions for their kids, and those that want to wear masks can choose to.
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“Where does it stop?” McIntyre said.
When the board returned, people who had signed up to speak were brought in individually to comment to the board. All others were asked to leave the building.
Parent Lauren Thornton spoke during public comment to share concerns about how the mask mandate will affect children with individualized education plans, particularly for those with speech difficulties. She asked the board to end the mandate.
”My son needs to practice the airflow from his nose and his mouth, the placement of his tongue and I would love for someone to explain to me how this is supposed to work with a mask on,” she said. She said her son also needs to see how others talk, something he missed in kindergarten last year, she said.
India Ochs, a parent and former Board of Education candidate, urged the board to maintain the mask mandate. She said that while masks may hurt a person’s pride, they don’t affect their freedom and ability to go to school, to the store or on play dates.
”Yet, if masks are made optional we do endanger the freedom of those who are unvaccinated because of age or health reasons, with those vulnerable populations no longer having the freedom of movement or assembly without risking illness or potentially death,” she said.