Conversations on mask-wearing in schools this fall consumed a portion of Wednesday’s Carroll County Public Schools Board of Education meeting.
Ed Singer, Carroll County’s health officer, said before the meeting that he wanted to have conversations about how masks can keep children from missing school and allow them to avoid quarantining if they have close contact with someone infected with COVID-19.
“I recommended all along that [the school system] follow the CDC guidance,” Singer said in an interview Wednesday afternoon before the meeting.
After hearing Singer’s presentation, Carroll’s board of education stuck with its policy of keeping masks optional.
“I’m still in the position of that masks should be optional unless mandated by the governor otherwise,” board member Donna Sivigny said.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics states that children should return to full-time learning and that all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools should wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC lowered the social distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet, and recommends other mitigation strategies, such as mask-wearing, when distancing is not possible.
Singer said the CDC is attempting to balance the need for in-person learning with the need to mitigate, and masking could address the number of students who have to quarantine throughout the year because they are close contacts with someone who is sick.
CDC policy grants an exception to quarantine close contacts in the classroom if the school was practicing layered mitigation strategies such as mask-wearing, distancing and improved ventilation.
If both the infected student and the student with close contact were correctly and consistently using masks during the exposure, they can be exempt from having to quarantine. The exemption does not apply to adults in the classroom.
Singer said quarantining guidance is not up to the school system but enforced by the county health department.
Unvaccinated students who are close contacts with an infected person must quarantine for at least seven days, per the county health department. Students may return to school after seven days with a negative test; testing is recommended between the third and fifth day after exposure. Untested students may return to school after 10 days without symptoms. All unvaccinated students must wear a mask through day 14 after exposure, regardless of testing.
Vaccinated students, as well as those who have had COVID-19 in the previous three months, do not have to quarantine following close contact with someone who is infected, but must wear a mask for 14 days unless they test negative.
The school system, however, has maintained that mask-wearing will be optional to start the 2021-22 school year.
“While the use of masks in schools remains optional, CCPS respects that some of our students and staff may wish to continue wearing them and will fully support anyone’s decision to do so,” Carey Gaddis, spokesperson for Carroll County Public Schools, said in an email Wednesday afternoon.
Federal law still requires that all students wear masks on public transportation, including school buses.
Some parents have argued mask-wearing should be optional and a decision they make for their own children.
However, Singer said “they’re making a decision for the other child too” if their sick child causes close contacts to quarantine. He also noted that the majority of the new COVID-19 cases reported in the county this past week were people younger than 18.
Singer’s presentation stated that 55% of 12- through 19-year-olds have been vaccinated in the county. It also noted the new coronavirus cases per 100,000 this week is 37.9, or 11.8% higher than last week, and that the positivity rate is 3.45%, or 2.01% higher than last week’s.
Singer created a pros and cons list for the possible mask policies that prevent transmission and maximize in-person education.
The pros of a universal mask order would be maximizing in-person education for students, minimizing COVID transmission, reducing the spread of other respiratory illness, and avoiding disclosing vaccination status. The only cons listed were mask inconveniences and litter.
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The pros listed for a policy that requires mandating masks for all who are not vaccinated were helping preserve in-person education, lowering the chances of transmission, and possibly encouraging the 12 and younger population to receive vaccines when available. The cons listed were possible vaccine and mask-related bullying, difficulty enforcing the policy due to limited access to vaccine statuses, and that schools will not qualify for quarantine exemptions.
The only pro listed for the policy that masks required in elementary schools but made them optional in secondary schools is that it protects children who are not old enough to be vaccinated. And the three cons were possible bullying, only elementary schools qualifying for quarantine exemption, and a higher chance of losing in-person schooling for secondary students.
The board picked neither policy option. Board member Patricia Dorsey said during Wednesday’s meeting that she’s concerned for the student population that cannot be vaccinated, for those with compromised health conditions and that the system will no longer offer a virtual program.
Fellow member Sivigny said masks should still be optional unless mandated by the governor and cited emails from elementary teachers who said the masks prohibit effective learning as one of the reasons.
Board members Ken Kiler and Tara Battaglia also agreed to keeping masks optional.
Board members agreed with Superintendent Steve Lockard’s suggestion to continue monitoring COVID-19 cases in the schools in case they “need to make any changes.”
On Thursday, Harford County schools joined other regional districts requiring masks be worn inside all buildings. In addition, Howard County schools on Thursday said all school employees will be required to provide proof of full vaccination or undergo regular COVID-19 testing for the 2021-22 school year.