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Lou Taylor, the superintendent of Worcester County Public Schools, visits Pamela Messick and her sixth grade math class at Berlin Intermediate School on the first day of school Sept. 6.

A group of Democrats who outnumber their Republican counterparts have officially superseded local ruling bodies to require everyone inside school buildings across the state to wear face coverings.

Members of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review voted 10-7 along party lines — Democrats in favor, Republicans against — on Tuesday to solidify an emergency indoor masking order that members of the state Department of Education passed on Aug. 26.

The order is good for 180 days, but state board members agreed to reassess the situation every 30.

Before Tuesday’s vote, districts in only two Maryland counties — Carroll and Somerset — were still mask-optional.

Worcester County was also initially set to begin the year with face coverings highly recommended, but not mandated, but the state board’s vote swayed the decision before the first classes began last week.

So while Tuesday’s vote was pretty much moot for the local district, Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) expressed objection.

In an emailed statement, she called the vote “a major overreach by the State Board of Education, usurping the will of local elected school boards.”

“It is a one-size-fits-all approach that does not account for the variation in educational settings and COVID-19 metrics found throughout the state or allow for local flexibility to act and react quickly to changing metrics,” Carozza said. “It is an inappropriate overreach for the State Board of Education to reverse a local board’s decision and then require that local board to enforce a mandate or risk their funding.”

She added that the directive is “much more than a mask mandate.”

“This regulation presents many compliance questions that will negatively impact the classroom and learning environment as local boards and educators struggle with enforcement,” she said.

Superintendent Lou Taylor has said that the primary goal of the district is keeping kids in school, and masking is a tool to help ensure that. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest quarantine rules for students allow them to stay in school longer if a peer tests positive for covid if they are masked.

Last year, any student who was within 6 feet of another covid positive student for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, regardless of masking, was sent home for 10 to 14 days. Under the current guidelines, any student who is 3 feet or more from a student with covid will not be sent home unless they are symptomatic.

Carrie Sterrs, the coordinator of public relations and special programs at Worcester County Public Schools said in an email Wednesday that 39 people within the school system tested positive for covid during the first week of school, which began Sept. 6.

As of Monday, she said the total number of student “exclusions” countywide was 154. She explained that exclusions refers to students who are not currently allowed to be present in school because of a covid-related issue — either a positive test or a close contact.

“It is important to note, however, that as of today, there have been zero close contacts on school property (meaning that those exclusions were the result of exposure outside of the school setting) and only two close contacts on school transportation,” Sterrs said Wednesday. “We are proud to know that the comprehensive mitigation strategies we have implemented in our schools are working as intended: to keep as many students in school as possible for learning.”

She added that district officials can send students who have tested positive for covid, or who have been deemed a close contact of someone who tested positive, home, but that they cannot officially recommend that they quarantine.

Students and teachers at the county’s private schools also returned to classrooms last week.

At Most Blessed Sacrament, where masks are required for everyone indoors, officials reported two positive cases the second day of school on Sept. 7, one student and one teacher. As a result, 24 other students were sent home.

According to a letter from Principal Trinette Stillman, four students were close contacts to the student, while the other 20 — an entire first grade class — were deemed close contacts to their teacher.

She explained that close contact designation is different for adults and children.

“The distance of 6 feet is recommended between students and teachers/staff,” the letter said. “An adult or student who was within 6 feet of an infected adult person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period would be considered a close contact even if both are wearing a well-fitted mask the entire time. The only exception is vaccination status.”

For students, the CDC’s latest mask guidelines for distances of 3 feet or more applies for close contacts.

At Worcester Preparatory School, which also held its first day for all students together on Sept. 6, masks are highly recommend for everyone but no mandate exists. Since the school is private, the state directives do not apply.

On Wednesday, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health, Worcester Prep had three positive covid cases. No data regarding close contacts was provided.

This story appears in the print version of the Ocean City Today on Sept. 17.

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