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Carroll County officials, parents share opinions on future of public school masking policy

Carroll County parents and a local school board member had mixed opinions on the future of public school masking policy after the Maryland State Board of Education offered guidance on the issue this week.

On Wednesday, state school board members voted 12-2 to direct state officials to draft a new emergency mandate that would give public schools “off ramps” to masking requirements in the future. The current emergency regulation requiring mask wearing in all Maryland public schools expires after Feb. 15.

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Maryland’s superintendent of schools, Mohammed Choudhury, asked state board members to consider tying school masking requirements to COVID-19 metrics, such as student and employee vaccination rates or community transmission. Other states have taken similar approaches. In Massachusetts, some schools with 80% or more vaccinated students are permitted to lift their mask mandates.

Members of the Carroll County school board have opposed the state’s universal mask mandate since it was first implemented. Carroll was the only school system in the region to start the school year without a mask mandate. After the state mandate took effect, the Carroll board continued to call for its removal, even as COVID-19 cases rose. The Carroll board sent a resolution to the state calling for the mandate to be lifted. That resolution was backed by the Carroll District 5 delegation, which sent its own letter to the state.

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Marsha Herbert, president of Carroll’s school board, testified during a special meeting of the state school board on Nov. 16 that masking policy should be left to individual counties.

“All of our counties are so very different,” Herbert said at the time. “One size does not fit all.”

She also called for the state’s mask mandate to be lifted by Jan. 3, reasoning that those who want the vaccine should be able to receive it by that time.

Fellow Carroll board member Tara Battaglia did not offer an opinion on mask wearing during an interview this week, but focused on local control. She said having the state make a decision for local boards to follow sets a precedent “that they can make anything mandatory at any time.”

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Battaglia said anything that involves setting a mandate for public schools should first be approved by local school board members and not handed down by the state.

“We’re elected officials,” she said. “They’re not. We know our community. They don’t.”

Acting Carroll health officer Susan Doyle sent a letter to the state in mid-November, affirming the health department’s support for continued mask mandates due to high transmission rates in the county.

Doyle said in an email on Thursday that the health department supports a new plan “that will connect masking to local metrics.” It was a policy she requested in her earlier letter to the state.

“In the end, what we all want is for the children in our community to be happy, healthy and to thrive,” she said in an email.

Some parents in Carroll still have concerns about mask mandates. Bryan Thompson, chair of Concerned Parents of Carroll County, said his group believes that the mask mandate should end.

“We are no longer in a state of emergency, and schools have shown to be safe, if not safer, compared to other venues,” he said in an email.

Concerned Parents of Carroll County is opposed to using vaccination rates as a metric to allow for optional masking, Thompson said.

“It ignores the science behind herd immunity, and discriminates against those who have natural immunity or other exemptions,” Thompson added.

He also said a new policy should not include any “on-ramps,” or ways for mandatory masking to be reimplemented.

Joe Hamilton of Westminster said the off-ramps are a decent idea, “but my concern as a parent in Carroll County is how they will define the off-ramps,” he said. “We’ve seen that our [Board of Education] wants to invent their own criteria, and if the off-ramps don’t force their hands, I think they would say that things are fine now, while we are in high transmission and have numbers worse than the state average.”

He said he understands that as more students are vaccinated, masking may not need to be mandated, but become a personal choice. He added that he hopes any changes to mask policy are based on two weeks of data showing low or moderate transmission rates, and involve a “test to stay” policy for students who are exposed. Test to stay is a practice comprising regular testing and contact tracing to allow close contacts to remain in the classroom, while maintaining other layered prevention strategies, such as universal masking, to reduce the spread of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Elizzabeth Barnhart of Finksburg said she does not agree with vaccinating students, and therefore, the mask mandate “should stay the way it is.” She said she knows people hate wearing masks, and her asthma also makes it hard to wear them, but if doctors and nurses have worn them to protect themselves everyone else can, too.

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