As expected, Montgomery County, Maryland’s Board of Education has voted to shift to a “mask-optional” policy in schools.
With Tuesday afternoon’s unanimous vote, Maryland’s largest school system joined Virginia in making them optional. Around the D.C. area, masks are required now only inside D.C. and Prince George’s County schools.
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Prior to the vote, interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said that the change reflects improved COVID metrics in the county, and that the school system will continue monitoring them “as we’ve always done” in case they worsen again.
“If we’ve learned nothing else from COVID-19, we know that we can’t always predict the future,” she said.
And with that vote, McKnight said, the school system will be launching a campaign to promote respecting others’ beliefs on the issue of masking.
“This is one that will be necessary for us to make sure that every staff member in all of our facilities and every student feels that their opinion and their choice — no matter what it is — is to be respected,” McKnight said. “And the more we can all say that, the more we can emphasize it and model it in our interactions, is important.”
Shifting to a mask-optional policy seems like a big step to a lot of people, Board Member Rebecca Smondrowski said.
“But unless you’re only going to school and staying home, we’ve kind of already taken that step,” she said, “so I’m hopeful that it’ll be a nice, easy, smooth transition for not just our students, but our staff.”
The Montgomery County Education Association – which represents over 14,000 school employees – also backed the resolution lifting the mask mandate.
In video testimony, MCEA President Jennifer Martin cited the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in not opposing the change, but she said any new plans should take into account the needs of high-risk populations.
“What accommodation will be made for these individuals?” she asked.
The union, Martin added, also has questions about how the school system plans to handle yet another case surge, or the emergence of a new COVID variant.
“MCEA seeks consistency and clarity on the metrics for determining when a return to masking might be needed,” Martin said.
Tuesday’s vote followed a morning of testimony from parents and a few students on both sides of the debate.
Parent Erika Norman said masks make it harder for kids to connect and form new friendships, and that mandates “should be reserved for situations where advised by health authorities (i.e., not now) and a serious discussion should be had of costs, benefits and the unique needs of some special populations before imposing it.”
One parent of a sixth-grader, Shawn Lyons, also backed lifting the mandate, noting that kids have been at the lowest risk of harm, death and hospitalization from COVID.
“Our children also have the lowest risk of transmitting and spreading the virus,” he said. “… It has become evident that the fear tactics from our media, as well as our politicians, have made [an] impact on a large percentage of Montgomery County residents.”
Keir Bickerstaffe said his 7-year-old, who has chronic medical conditions, can only return to school safely if a masking mandate remains in place.
“I promise you, nobody wants this pandemic to be over more than immunocompromised people and their families,” Bickerstaffe wrote. “We have borne the brunt of this pandemic in terms of mitigating risk and isolating ourselves.
“But while many may be ready to declare themselves ‘done’ with the pandemic, immunocompromised children do not have that luxury. Not yet.”
Parent Peter Witzler also urged the board to keep the mandate in place for the sake of his 6-year-old son Jackson, who has spina bifida and is immunocompromised.
“Your decision today could force my family to make an impossible choice risking Jackson’s educational progress or knowingly sending him to an unsafe learning environment,” Witzler testified.
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