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Anne Arundel County

‘It’s great to see smiles.’ Anne Arundel educators, parents talk about mask optional policy a week after board decision.

Anne Arundel County teachers and students are face-to-face in classrooms again without face masks for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the closure of schools in March of 2020.

More than a week since the school board made masks optional in county school buildings, Broadneck High School Principal Rachel Kennelly is proud of how her students have handled the shift, and said there have been no complaints of bullying.

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On Feb. 18, the first day masking was optional, she said about half of students wore a mask and half did not. Fewer and fewer students have worn a mask since, she said, as they navigate what they feel comfortable with.

“It’s great to see smiles. The atmosphere in the building is definitely joyful,” Kennelly said.

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The change was made after Superintendent George Arlotto informed the board that 80% of those eligible for vaccination in Anne Arundel have been inoculated, based on information verified by the Maryland Department of Health. Reaching a county vaccination rate of at least 80% was one of three standards set by the state Board of Education, after which schools can end mandatory masking.

Arlotto said because the county had met the state regulation, masking could end immediately. The board voted to change the policy effective two days later, on Feb. 18.

The state Board of Education met Feb. 22 and rescinded the regulation altogether, sending the authority to change the policy to county officials. This action was confirmed on Friday by a General Assembly committee, allowing the remaining counties to drop mask mandates. But this decision was irrelevant to Anne Arundel, where the board had already made a change under the regulation.

Starting Feb. 28 mask-wearing will also become optional on school buses, following a change in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AACPS announced Saturday. The change does not apply to buses and schools on federal property, such as Fort Meade.

Maskless South River students cheer in the fourth quarter of their team's winning effort last Thursday.

The freedom from masks was evident at county school sporting events like last Thursday’s boys basketball game at South River High School between the Seahawks and the Annapolis Panthers. At the game, maskless students happily cheered their team to victory. Among adults at the game, more masks were visible.

While some parents say it was past time to make masking optional, others think it was done too soon and are worried about family who are susceptible to severe illness from COVID.

Melissa Idleman of Pasadena said she thinks it was the right time to change the policy. She said for the first time this year her child’s day isn’t interrupted by panic attacks, which she attributes to anxiety and body image issues created by the mandatory masking policy.

“It’s time to end the suffering of our children,” she said.

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Kerry Gillespie said she thinks parents should decide whether or not their student wears a mask in school, and is happy to see masking become optional.

“Nobody knows our children as well as we do as parents. I love seeing my child able to concentrate in school and not have to worry about the mask,” she said.

Some parents felt blindsided by Arlotto’s announcement that the county had met the state standard for unmasking and the school board’s action to end the requirement.

“I would have expected some sort of period for comment,” Ian Wright of Crofton said. “I didn’t even know they were going to be discussing it.”

He said over the course of the pandemic, his children haven’t raised any concerns about needing to wear a face mask. He is worried about the risk of his children getting infected and spreading that infection to a family member with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who is at high risk for severe illness from COVID.

“I would rather have lower spread and a bit of inconvenience than having to worry about them and anybody else getting [COVID-19] because of something as minor as having to wear a mask,” Wright said.

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Kirsten Neumann of Arnold has a kindergartener in AACPS and a younger child at home who is a year out from beating cancer, stage 4 neuroblastoma. If infected, her youngest could become severely ill, and Neumann is worried that the mask mandate was lifted too soon and will increase that risk.

Her daughter is one of a handful of kids who have continued masking in her class of 22.

“No one has been mean to her. That makes me happy. It’s disturbing that so many parents don’t think the virus is a big deal,” she said.

According to the county school website’s dashboard, 83 students out of roughly 83,000 in system were out of school with COVID-19. That number was 1,501 in mid-January. The system reports 7 staff members out, down from 119 in early January.

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Adult fans, some sporting masks, watch as the South River Seahawks defeated the visiting Annapolis Panthers, 64-55, last Thursday in the first round of the MPSSAA Class 4A East Section II playoffs.

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