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Howard trying to determine best approach to school masking following state board decisions

As the Maryland State Board of Education continues to modify masking protocols to meet shifting conditions during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Howard County Public School System board members and area residents are also trying to determine the best approach moving forward.

On Tuesday, the state board voted on a new mask mandate, that allows students to go without masks if the community spread of COVID-19 in their county is moderate or if vaccination rates are above 80% in the school or the surrounding community.

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No school system currently meets the requirements of the emergency regulation. State data show that no district has 80% of its staff and students vaccinated and community spread is at “substantial” levels in all 24 of Maryland’s school districts.

The emergency regulation also still needs legislative approval.

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Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury had asked state board members not to lift the current emergency regulation requiring masking in schools through Feb. 15 and to consider tying school masking requirements to COVID-19 metrics, such as employee and student vaccination rates or community transmission.

A month prior to the start of the school year, Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano announced that masks would be required in school buildings for staff, students and visitors regardless of their vaccination status.

The decision came after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics and the Howard County Health Department released new guidance amid a rise in coronavirus cases across the country and state during the summer.

In addition to masking, county public schools require all school employees to provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or undergo regular testing and all high school student-athletes to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or undergo weekly testing in order to participate in school-sponsored winter athletics.

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Howard County is leading the state with the highest percentage of vaccinated residents, according to the Howard County Health Department. As of Nov. 18, 91.7% of residents 12 to 17 years old were fully vaccinated, while 84.6% had received at least one vaccine dose.

Additionally, 16.5% county children ages 5 to 11 had received their first dose in the first two weeks since the vaccine became available to their age group.

Despite high vaccination rates and low case numbers, the school system has not made any decisions to lift its mask mandates in the near future, board members say.

“I believe we need to be prudent on this,” Board Chair Chao Wu said. “Masks are one of the very important risk mitigation methods, and the COVID situation is not clear yet. We should keep the masks on and come back to evaluate it earlier next year, periodically.”

Board member Vicky Cutroneo said the board is basing its masking decisions on guidance from the county health department.

“I believe that whether to mask or not is a health decision and so we’ve always conferred with our health director, Dr. [Maura] Rossman, for guidance,” Cutroneo said. “I believe even if the state removes it, it comes down to local control, and we still have the right to impose our own local [mandate], but we would confer with our health director.”

County parents have had mixed opinions when it comes to how the board should approach mask mandates.

Gene Harrington of Ellicott City, who has twin boys in the fifth grade at Waverly Elementary School, said he approves of the board reexamining mask mandates.

“I am fine with the statewide mask mandate but am comfortable with the board revisiting the issue, especially given that the vaccines have now been approved for 5- to 11-year-olds,” he said.

Madison Schiner of Mount Airy has a second-, fourth- and fifth-grader at Mount Airy Christian Academy.

After sending her two older children to Lisbon Elementary School in Woodbine during the 2020-21 school year, she enrolled them in private school at the beginning of this year. Schiner said she is not confident that the county school board will use data and science in their decision-making.

“I worry about the precedent that has already been set: if we leave COVID-related decision-making up to local boards, students, especially the most vulnerable, pay the price in lost education,” she said.

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