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Harford schools wants unvaccinated band members to wear masks to march in parades. A delegate says that’s discriminatory.

Harford County Public Schools’ ruling that marching band members who are not fully vaccinated must mask up during Independence Day parades is drawing opposition from a state delegate.

Making unvaccinated people, particularly children, wear masks in certain situations is akin to treating them “like they’re some kind of leper,” according to Del. Lauren Arikan, who has called for the resignation of the county’s school superintendent and health officer over a recent recommendation.

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School leaders said in a message to band directors that they made the decision after seeking advice from the county’s health department.

Fully vaccinated students — those two weeks removed from receiving their second dose of the coronavirus shot — would not need to wear masks to march in the parades, according to the message. Students who are not vaccinated or considered fully vaccinated would have to mask up, and those who play wind instruments such as the clarinet or trumpet would need to have a bell cover to prevent the aerosolized spread of the virus, according to the message.

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The requirements are similar to what all students have been doing in their schools’ band rooms to practice, according to Jillian Lader, a spokesperson for the school system. In class, wind instrument students have been using specialized face masks with a flap that allows them to play their instrument and would have to use those when marching in a parade if they are either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

But Arikan, a Republican representing Harford and Baltimore counties, called the practice is discriminatory, with the masks serving as a scarlet letter of sorts.

“It’s a way to publicly shame the families who have chosen [not to have their children vaccinated], which there are a significant percentage of in this county, I have no doubt,” she said. “That’s not appropriate. We’re not the county to do public displays of shame, which is what masking children outside in July is. There is no reason to do that.”

As of Sunday, about 51% of the county’s total population has received its first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the latest data available from the county health department. About 40% of children ages 16-17 and 18% of ages 12-15 have gotten their first shot.

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In a news release, Arikan and Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican who also represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said the marching band policy was the latest in a series of “15 months of absurd policy decisions” and “took things so far over the line,” calling for the resignations of county schools Superintendent Sean Bulson and county health officer Dr. David Bishai.

Harford County residents, Arikan said in an interview, “are not prone to COVID hysteria.”

“This is Harford County and we’re different out here,” she said. “We don’t need leaders that aren’t reflecting our values.”

Bulson and Bishai declined to comment on the calls for them to resign.

‘Trying to do harm reduction’

Bishai, who is also a practicing physician at the emergency department of the University of Maryland St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Towson and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health did explain why he thinks PPE is necessary for unvaccinated student musicians.

When musicians in brass and woodwind sections of a band blow in their instruments to play them, they form jets of aerosolized particles — tiny respiratory droplets of liquid that can carry COVID-19 — that can go beyond the 6 feet that has generally been considered a safe distance, even when outdoors, he said.

“So our usual belief that outdoors is safe does not apply to musical bands,” Bishai said. “To prevent the jets, we’re recommending that bell covers go over the bell of the instrument to prevent the jet. But then there are still the people in the band that are unvaccinated that are probably going to get a little bit of aerosol.”

Researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park, studied last year how musical performances can become vectors for virus transmission, and how the risk can be reduced by using PPE like the modified instrument masks and bell covers.

When Bulson and school officials came to him for his advice about allowing marching band students to participate in parades, Bishai said his first choice would be for all participants to be vaccinated, but he recognizes there are reasons parents may not want to have their child vaccinated.

“We’re just trying to do harm reduction and protect both the public from the aerosolized particles,” he said. “There is still substantial virus [in the community]. We don’t know what it will be like in July, but because this is a public performance, we really wanted to keep the public safe and the students safe.

“You’re going to be safer with a mask on and a slit to blow your instrument through.”

He went further to say that it’s good health advice to wear a mask outdoors, even if it is no longer mandated by state and local governments, and it’s the schools prerogative to do extra to keep students safe.

But Arikan says “there should be no masking outside whatsoever. Period.”

‘A political dilemma’

Asking unvaccinated people to wear masks treats them like second-class citizens, creating different rules for them based on medical decisions they’ve made, she said.

“I don’t want to see people treated differently because they’ve made their own medical decisions, that’s unacceptable,” she said.

Referencing a recent presentation Bishai made to the Harford County Council about vaccinated people still being able to spread the virus, Arikan said that means “there’s no reason for disparate treatment of people based on their vaccination status.”

More recent scientific studies, though, have shown vaccines reduce the risk of people spreading COVID-19, which weighed in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent guidance that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks.

Bishai called the situation a political dilemma that everyone faces.

“We now have a county where half the people can spread the virus and half the people have antibodies that prevent this,” he said. “We look to all of our political leaders for guidance in balancing an American principle of wanting to treat everybody the same while we have a virus that discriminates and greatly prefers to spread among unvaccinated people, some of whom cannot obtain vaccines because of their age, medical conditions, or deep beliefs. These choices won’t be easy.”

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