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Carroll County school board votes to send resolution to state requesting COVID mask mandate be rescinded

Carroll County’s school board continued its push for making face masks optional in school buildings Wednesday as they voted to send a resolution to the state asking that the mandate be rescinded.

Board members voted 4-1 Wednesday night calling on the state school board to allow districts to set their own mask requirements. During the discussion, members advocated the importance of local control.

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Board president Marsha Herbert said she will be speaking at a special state board of education meeting on Tuesday and promoting optional mask wearing. Maryland’s education department announced Wednesday night that its special meeting “will collect feedback on the state’s emergency school mask requirement through public input and public health expert testimony.”

The state board voted to make masks mandatory for all public schools during the summer in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Maryland. Its vote was approved by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review. Prior to the votes on the mandate, Carroll’s board members kept masks optional. At one point, they were the only system in the region without a mask mandate.

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The General Assembly committee’s vote was the only reason CCPS students and staff now wear masks.

Board members Donna Sivigny, Ken Kiler and Hebert spoke during the state legislative hearing advocating for optional mask wearing. When masks were mandatory last school year, Kiler and Herbert wrote letters in May requesting the mandate be lifted.

And when the state school board was expected to vote to mandate masks for the current school year, Carroll board members scrambled to discuss the topic with legal counsel during a closed meeting, which was later found in violation of the Open Meetings Act. Herbert acknowledged that violation at Wednesday’s meeting.

The Carroll board voted back in August, after the state board voted for the mask mandate, to request an exemption from the mask mandate and for flexibility on the mask mandate based on local COVID-19 conditions.

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Board member Tara Battaglia brought up the topic again during Wednesday’s meeting. She asked Ed O’Meally, legal counsel for CCPS, if the board can file an appeal to current mask mandate, and O’Meally said the time to file has passed.

As Battaglia called for action to show the board wants local authority back, O’Meally explained they never had it to begin with. State law, he said, gives the state school board authority over CCPS.

“You may not like it, but that’s the law,” he said.

O’Meally suggested passing a resolution.

After Battaglia made the motion for a resolution, Sivigny seconded and a discussion ensued. Battaglia said it’s about more than masks.

“If they did a mask mandate, they can turn around and do whatever they want,” she said.

Sivigny said now that the vaccine is available for younger kids, it takes away the need for masks, and noted there’s support in the community to make masks optional.

Dr. Eric Toner, senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the logic of the board members is “flawed” and unmasking students and staff at this time will lead to more infections. Although 5 to11-year-olds can be vaccinated at this time, they have only just received the first shot.

“Even if we assume every child in Carroll got vaccinated today ... they wouldn’t have full immunity until Christmas,” Toner said. “It doesn’t make sense to drop our guard at this point.”

Toner added there is evidence that masking prevents the spread of COVID-19, and to reach herd immunity against the delta variant, 90% of the population would have to be vaccinated. He also noted that positive cases in Carroll, and across the nation, are rising.

On Monday, the Carroll County health department reported that COVID-19 cases had increased for the second consecutive week after several weeks of decreasing totals. There were 174 new COVID-19 cases reported in the county last week after 163 were announced for the week of Oct. 24 and 127 the week of Oct. 17.

During discussion of the school board’s resolution Wednesday, members’ comments strayed to the vaccine mandates, which have not instituted for students or staff in public schools at this point.

“I’m scared to death the vaccine mandate comes down to kids,” Battaglia said. “If that comes down the pipeline, I will pull my own children from the schools system.”

“I will as well,” Sivigny added.

Though no vaccine mandates exist at the moment, school officials have said they are preparing in case the federal government implements vaccine and testing mandates for staff. They do not expect, however, a vaccine mandate for students.

The Carroll County health department reported that over 480 5 through 11-year-olds have been vaccinated during their Monday clinic. Meanwhile, CCPS’s weekly COVID-19 dashboard, which updates every Wednesday, showed the number of positive coronavirus cases rose from 164 to 193 in the last week, making it the third consecutive week of increases.

O’Meally encouraged the Carroll board to keep its resolution supporting optional masks in schools as focused as possible and Sivigny agreed.

Board member Patricia Dorsey noted the state school board is planning to hold a meeting in early December to consider loosening their guidance on mask mandates and quarantines. She later suggested waiting for that meeting before taking any action.

However, Carroll’s board decided to have the resolution written that night to send as soon as possible.

The resolution cites vaccinations for students and the concerns for mask wearing from the community “especially as the weather turns colder and opportunities for outdoor mask breaks become less available” as reasons they are requesting the state board rescind its mandate.

Additionally, the resolution asks to “return to the local boards of education the full authority to regulate on a local basis the wearing of face coverings as the individual local boards of education deem appropriate for their local school communities.”

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Dorsey voted against the resolution, as well as Devanshi Mistry whose vote does not count as a student member.

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