Harford County Public Schools will require that masks be worn inside all buildings and school buses starting Monday, according to a letter from the superintendent and school board president.
The announcement, which was posted to the school board’s website late Thursday, comes ahead of Monday’s Board of Education meeting, where the school system is expected to discuss the decision and additional mitigation strategies for the upcoming school year, which begins Sept. 8.
County Health Officer Dr. David Bishai recommended universal indoor masking for the school system when students and teachers return to class in September to protect against the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant. He is scheduled to make a presentation at the meeting, reviewing the scientific rationale for his recommendation for mask use, said Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department.
Masks will be required at Monday’s board meeting, according to Jillian Lader, a spokesperson for the school system.
Harford school officials asked Bishai to evaluate various policies that could limit the number of school outbreaks and quarantines to protect children and staff and keep schools open, Mraz said.
“Based on the evidence on mask efficacy in preventing COVID-19 transmission, [Bishai] has recommended universal indoor masking to Harford County K-12 schools as the best way to protect children and keep schools open,” she said.
She noted the health department does not have the authority to enforce masking in schools; that lies with the school system.
“We reviewed all evidence on risks and benefits of policy options, and we made the recommendation,” Mraz said. “The school system and BOE then make the actual decision. The health department makes no decisions for the BOE, HCPS, or county government.”
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. The organization recommends children returning to full-time, in-person learning in the fall, but using multiple prevention strategies together, including universal masking, physical distancing of at least 3 feet in classrooms, and potentially virus screening.
Universal masking means all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools would be required to wear a face covering, regardless of vaccination status.
One of the reasons the health department recommended universal masking is because it can limit the number of students who may need to quarantine throughout the school year if they are a close contact with an infected person.
The Maryland State Department of Education has noted that in the K-12 indoor classroom setting, the CDC’s close contact definition excludes students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student if both the infected student and the exposed student correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time.
“This is a reason why we are recommending universal mask-wearing in the schools,” Mraz said. “Our goal is to keep the kids in school and most importantly, healthy.”
The school system letter explains that when students are not wearing masks or unable to distance, then they may be sent home to quarantine for 10 to 14 days, depending on transmission rates in the community.
“As we experienced last school year, quarantine can be extremely disruptive to learning and our goal is to reduce quarantine to keep our students in school,” the letter states.
Masking is not the only strategy HCPS will use to keep students healthy and in school, according to the letter, which is signed by Superintendent Sean Bulson and Board of Education President Rachel Gauthier.
“Safety layers will include emphasizing staying home when sick, handwashing, cleaning, continued ventilation improvements, distancing at least 3 feet wherever possible, COVID testing of symptomatic individuals and close contacts, vaccination clinics, special mitigation strategies for high-risk activities, and response to outbreaks,” the letter states.
All students riding buses will be required to wear masks on the bus, per CDC and Maryland State Department of Education guidelines for transportation.
When county schools announced they were lifting mask requirements July 1, masks were not expected to be required for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. However, Lader said at the time HCPS officials would continue to have dialogue with the local health department and review guidance from the CDC and the Maryland State Department of Education regarding schools and best practices in response to COVID-19 throughout the summer.
Since the beginning of July, when Gov. Larry Hogan lifted the state of emergency and statewide mask mandates, the delta variant and COVID-19 infections in unvaccinated people has caused Maryland and Harford County’s average new case rates per 100,000 people to increase approximately tenfold.
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As of Thursday, the average case rate was 13.67 statewide and 11.8 in Harford, compared to 1 and 1.29 on July 1, respectively.
New percentage of people testing positive for the coronavirus also continues to increase. Once registering at less than 1%, the rate is now 4.39% in Maryland and 4.8% in Harford as of Thursday. Earlier in the week, Harford’s positivity rate climbed above 5%, which had been the CDC’s threshold for “high” community transmission.
Harford County was one of 14 jurisdictions in the state with “substantial” transmission of the virus, according to the latest CDC data for Maryland. Nine Maryland counties, including neighboring Cecil County, have high transmission, according to the CDC. Only one, Carroll County, has moderate levels of transmission. On Wednesday, its school board decided to keep masks optional, despite a recommendation from the Carroll County health officer for universal masking.
Some parents and politicians have been adamant about not forcing children to wear masks in schools. Several people spoke about mask mandates during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s Harford County Council meeting.
“To date our school system hasn’t made a decision on masking, although I think we can all guess what that decision will be,” Becky Malloy, a Bel Air resident, said. “Parents should be the ones deciding what, if any, medical devices, are used on their children, not anyone else. That should be a choice.”
Michelle Willoughby of Jarrettsville said at the council meeting that “wearing a mask eight to 10 hours a day, for our kids, is not healthy for a disease that hasn’t really affected them.”
A group plans to protest at 5:30 p.m. outside the A.A. Roberty Building on Hickory Avenue in Bel Air prior to Monday’s school board meeting.