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Students in Worcester County schools will likely not meet the necessary conditions to lift indoor masking requirements when students return from winter break as covid cases surge.

Despite a plan to allow for changes to the statewide school masking policy put in place at the beginning of the year, it is unlikely that any public or private local schools will be ditching face covering rules when students return from winter break.

On Dec. 7, members of the state board of education voted to publish an emergency order that would implement “off ramps,” or points of exit, to allow local districts to lift indoor mask mandates if specific conditions are met.

The conditions are listed as reporting more than 80 percent vaccination rates for all staff and students in individual schools, an 80 percent countywide vaccination rate, and/or 14 consecutive days of low or moderate countywide transmission rates.

To date, no school in Worcester County has met the 80 percent vaccination rate and the countywide number is still only at about 71 percent for those with one dose. The case rates are also not likely in the low or moderate transmission category, as the state’s transmission rates are currently high and on the rise, although the state health department has not shared data for individual counties for several weeks.

“We are not close to any of those off ramps as a community … ,” said Annette Wallace, the chief operating officer and chief academic officer for grades 9-12 at Worcester County Public Schools. “I don’t have a crystal ball but if I were to use scientific logic and reasoning, we’re not anywhere close to the metric right now.”

She added that the last time the county had reportedly low case rates was in the summer, at which time officials opted to make masks optional for summer school students and staff.

“So it actually seems like Worcester County did a really great job at using all of our research and making good decisions,” Wallace said. “Before the off ramps were even created, that’s what we were doing. So we feel good about what we’ve done in the past and we feel good about moving forward that we’ll be able to make good decisions when we are able to reach the off ramps, should we choose to do that.”

At Worcester Preparatory School, which as a private school is not required to follow state guidelines when it comes to masking, Head of School John McDonald said members of a covid task force recently met and discussed the issue. He said group members are “contemplating” the off ramps but that they want to clarify some information with the health department before taking the plunge.

“The reason we’re masking right now is because right now, when you’re masked and 3 feet away and someone tests positive, you’re not considered a close contact,” McDonald explained. “If that’s not going to change, you wouldn’t want an entire classroom to quarantine so that’s kind of why we’re still kind of waiting.”

The private school started the school year “strongly encouraging” masks but not requiring them but instituted a mandate several weeks in after a positive test sent roughly 20 students home to quarantine.

McDonald said officials also told students and staff to be careful during the winter break to avoid spikes in cases and sicknesses when they return to school in January. He said the school saw several cases after students returned to the classrooms from Thanksgiving break because of activities of people while they were not in school.

At Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, Director of Admissions and Advancement Amanda Evans said in an email that no changes have been made to the school’s masking rules since they started at the beginning of the year.

Like public schools and Worcester Prep, the private institution also requires everyone to wear masks indoors.

This story appears in the print edition of the OC Today on Dec. 24, 2021.

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