Anne Arundel Co. school board votes to lift mask mandate

The school board in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, voted unanimously to lift its mask mandate Wednesday evening.

Starting Friday, masks will become optional in Anne Arundel Public Schools, but students will still need to wear masks on buses due to a federal mandate. Students at the schools at Fort Meade would still have to follow the rules at the base, Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto said.

Arlotto, who earlier said he would recommend the move, told the school board that the county has an 80.1% vaccination rate — passing one of the milestones the state school board established for lifting a mandate.

“Our case rate in Anne Arundel County has been below 20 for the last week and below 15 for the last five days,” Arlotto said. “I believe the appropriate move at this time is to make masks optional for all of our students and employees.”

Anne Arundel County Public Schools has not had a school closure for the last 26 days following eight schools pausing in-person learning after COVID-19 outbreaks, Arlotto said.

Before the vote, Arlotto said a COVID-19 testing program used for interscholastic athletics during the fall and winter seasons will not be used for spring sports, all of which are outdoors, as case rates continue to drop.

Most of the school board members supported the recommendation, but chastised state health leaders in how they handled sending updated vaccination rates.

Board member Dana Schallheim called the issue “political theater,” adding that the data school leaders received does not match what is on display on the Maryland Department of Health website.

“I hope that whoever’s watching from the state, take note of that, because if this was, this is put in our wheelhouse, under our purview for us to act on as this body … it would have been nice to have been included in the data that apparently has been going out to some group of individuals for quite some time,” Schallheim said.

Student board member Bunmi Omisore said area school leaders had to approve the “off ramps” included by the Maryland’s school board before it became policy in late January. With the updated data, there was “no reason” why to not support the end of the mask mandate, she said.

Board member Joanna Tobin said she spent 72 hours on the phone trying to speak to a state health official, adding that it should not have been so hard for her and fellow board members to receive the information needed to have a vote.

At one point, she directly looked at the camera, speaking to state officials and said, “We are making these decisions; If you think for one minute that we’re going to be shunted to the side and not be shared information, you are wrong.”

“None of this should be political. This is about children. And so we have confirmation of the numbers,” Tobin said. “We have confirmation of the data. Numbers are strong. I’m a believer when we vote to support a set of regulations when you’ve met those regulations, you move on.”

Board members reminded parents that while they may decide to not have their child wear a mask, others may decide to do so. Schallheim said the school system’s code of conduct is in effect and taunting and harassing over one’s decision to wear a mask is not acceptable.

Board member Melissa Ellis said she has spoken to students who are afraid to take their masks off once the mandate is rescinded out of fear of being judged by their peers. She asked Arlotto if a message could be sent out to each school community reminding that wearing the mask is optional and a choice. The superintended agreed, saying a systemwide message will be sent out.

If there is an uptick of cases in the county, Arlotto said the school system will monitor a school’s cases rate. If it reaches 5%, a number set by the state’s health department, a declared outbreak will be announced by AAPS officials.

“Which means students will be sent home to quarantine for five days, and that could be a class of students, that could be a cohort of students,” Arlotto said.

With the vote decided before public comments were allowed, most of the people who spoke to the board praised its decision to lift the mandate. Following the vote, Gov. Larry Hogan praised the decision, saying in a tweet that he was “pleased” to see the district’s mask policy lifted.

Anne Arundel is one of the first Maryland jurisdictions to use the state’s “off ramps” to lift the mask mandates, an option the state’s education board added in January. While Montgomery County plans to let its countywide indoor mask mandate expire on Feb. 21, officials said no decision has been made regarding its public schools.

Despite not having reached any of the requirements by state school officials to remove its mandate, the Carroll County school board passed a resolution calling for Hogan to issue an executive order end all mask mandates statewide.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

José Umaña

José Umaña is a digital editor for WTOP. He’s been working as a journalist for almost a decade, covering local news, education and sports. His work has appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel, The Montgomery Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, PressBox and The Diamondback.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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