Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are planning to let a countywide indoor mask mandate expire Feb. 21 as the COVID-19 omicron surge ebbs across the region.
The mask mandate, which was issued by the county council acting as the board of health, has largely been in place since early August — except for a few weeks last fall — and applies to public indoor places, such as stores, restaurants and gyms.
However, even when the measure expires next week, masks in public school facilities will still be required, Montgomery County Public Schools officials told the council Tuesday.
“No decisions have been made just yet regarding changes to the mask requirement in all MCPS facilities,” James D’Andrea, the school system’s chief of staff, told council members.
The Montgomery County Board of Education is set to take up the school system’s mask policy at a meeting Feb. 24.
D’Andrea said the school system would rely on recommendations from the county’s health department on guidance on lifting the mask mandate.
The Maryland State Board of Education is also set to take up the issue of masks in schools next week.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has been urging the state board to rescind its statewide mask policies, pointing to rapidly improving COVID-19 case rates across the state and the availability of vaccines for school-age children.
The state board has already approved “off-ramps” to school mask policies that allow a local school board to lift its mask mandate if, for example, 80% of the population of the surrounding county has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or if a county’s COVID transmission rates are low or moderate for 14 consecutive days.
Montgomery County meets the first of those criteria based on its vaccination rates.
Council member Andrew Friedson urged Montgomery County school officials to be transparent about their decision-making process.
“Obviously, there’s mixed opinions on all of those issues, and I certainly understand and appreciate that, but I think it’s very important that, if there are recommendations that are coming from the health department to MCPS, that they be discussed publicly and shared publicly so that everybody understands what the decision is based off of,” he said.
Some nonpublic schools have already shifted to making masks optional, and the county has not intervene to stop them from doing so, Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told council members.
The lifting of Montgomery County’s general indoor mask mandate comes a week before D.C. plans to do the same.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Monday the District’s indoor mask mandate will expire March 1. But, in addition to schools, D.C. will still require masks in libraries and government facilities where employees directly interact with the public.
Stoddard said the county was still reviewing and discussing the mask policy for county buildings, such as libraries and recreation centers.
An indoor mask mandate remains in effect in Prince George’s County, Maryland, through March 9.
Overall, the county is seeing a dramatic turnaround in COVID-19 data, following a surge last month.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID in the county fell to 118 as of Monday — down from more than 500 a month ago. The COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 residents skyrocketed to more than 1,800 cases last month, but has now fallen to 98.
The test positivity rate was more than 22% a month ago, but has dropped to 3%.
Similarly, COVID cases in the public school system have sharply dropped.
When classes resumed following winter break, the school system was inundated with more than 10,000 COVID-19 reported in a week. By the final week of January, that had dropped to 455 cases, and last week fell to about 350 cases.
“The data has improved dramatically since January,” D’Andrea said.
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