Montgomery Co. Council members have questions on likely change to school mask policy

Montgomery County Council members questioned school and health officials Tuesday on the potential impact of moving schools to a mask-optional policy.

The questions came during the County Council’s meeting, and focused on concerns about lower vaccination rates in some school communities, as well as on the potential bullying of those students who might choose to keep wearing a mask.

In part of his opening remarks, Council President Gabe Albornoz commented on the online harassment that targeted Hana O’Looney, the student member of the Montgomery County Public School Board of Education.

The Richard Montgomery High School senior was singled out on Twitter for her comments made during Thursday’s school board meeting over concerns that the school system was acting too fast to go to a mask-optional policy and that some students wouldn’t be comfortable with the move.

“The rhetoric that all of us are experiencing and that we are seeing and that we are absorbing is horrific,” Albornoz said Tuesday. He urged adults to “remain civil in our discourse” and said those who choose to wear masks should be protected, “so that they are not ostracized in any way, shape or form.”

Council member Andrew Friedson agreed, saying the online attacks on O’Looney went from unacceptable to “completely unfathomable.”

Tuesday’s meeting included presentations from Montgomery County Public School officials who repeated that it’s “anticipated” that the Board of Education will vote in favor of moving to a mask-optional policy at its next business meeting on March 8.

Stephanie Iszard, the school system’s coordinator of health and wellness, told council members that communication in preparation for the school board’s vote would come later this week.

Several County Council members expressed their concern about schools making masks optional.

County Council member Tom Hucker asked Raymond Crowel, the director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, about the expected change.

“What’s your prediction about how that decision will impact the mental health crisis that our students are experiencing right now?” Hucker asked.

“Our response to them is going to be, certainly for folks who are anxious and concerned, to allow them and encourage them to continue to wear masks and take precautions,” Crowel replied.

Hucker also wanted to know how situations in which students are teased would be handled.

“Is there a concern about students who wish to wear masks being bullied or just being made fun of or other things?” he asked.

Council member Will Jawando asked a similar question, saying the potential for bullying over mask-wearing is a real thing.

“We have to have a plan on how to address it, because it will happen,” Jawando said.

Izsard said teams are working on that issue, but she didn’t elaborate on the potential strategies.

Sean O’Donnell, the public health emergency manager with the county’s Health Department, shared information on the CDC’s latest guidance, including vaccination protocols for the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccines.

It showed that 95% of the county’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine; 86% has received at least two doses; and 52% has been fully vaccinated and boosted.

Heather Dublinske of the school system’s Student Welfare and Compliance Office told council members that effective immediately, it would move to a five-day isolation-and-quarantine period for students. It would be strongly recommended that they take an at-home rapid test prior to returning to school after the fifth day of quarantine.

They then would be required to wear a mask for five additional days at school, except when eating or drinking. The same protocols would apply to staff members.

Hucker had reservations about schools shifting to a mask-optional policy for the entire school system.

“I’m just nervous, I’ll say, about a one-size-fits-all policy,” he said. “There are certainly some ZIP codes including in my district that have been the hardest hit — where the vaccination rates for 5- to 11-year-olds is under 30%.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up