In response to impassioned concerns about possible covid vaccine mandates for Worcester County students, the president of the board of education this week assured the public that school officials “are not there yet.”
But the fear exists, according to two speakers at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“I just wanted to encourage you, when this type of stuff comes down to force people against their will — basically pinning children down and saying you take this in order to get a free and appropriate education — when we reach that point, we have to really assess where are we, where are we going, what are we doing as a school system because that is not a productive environment,” meeting attendee Darren Lombardo told the board.
He said he has been following the issue at the state level, where a special Senate committee has been appointed to monitor the distribution of covid vaccines and ensure equitable access and fair distribution to residents. The five-member group is made up of four Democratic senators from the central and western parts of the state and one Republican from the Eastern Shore region.
According to a Maryland Matters story from late September, members have urged the health secretary to mandate covid vaccines for eligible school-aged students — those 12 years age and older — but have received pushback.
Lombardo said he is concerned that the mandate may go through at the state level, with the local decision ending up in the hands of the county school officials.
“This county is the front line. It doesn’t matter what happens on a federal or state level, this is the front line, and the citizens look to you,” he said. “The citizens entrust you as elected officials and people who are put in place to look out for them. It is crucial that you protect the citizens.”
Karen Abbott, who has spoken previously against the district’s existing mask mandate, said during Tuesday’s meeting that she is concerned that federal health officials and mainstream media outlets are “censoring” information about the potential ineffectiveness of the vaccine, as well as benefits of alternative covid treatments and protections.
As she made her points, Board President Elena McComas interrupted, stating board members are not going down that path.
“We honestly aren’t there yet,” she said of vaccine mandates in schools.
McComas added, after Abbott assured the mandates are “coming,” that officials are fully aware of what could occur. She also encouraged the speakers to continue expressing their concerns and opinions and assured that board members are listening.
The issue may also become more pronounced with the approaching approval of vaccines for children in the 5 to 11 age group, which federal health officials have said could occur by the end of the month.
With the mask mandate, which is required for everyone in school buildings regardless of vaccine status, board members had no say over the passage of the order, and have yet to go public with their stances.
Superintendent Lou Taylor issued the mask directive after members of the state board of education voted for it just before the first day of school. The vote was followed by a General Assembly committee voting several weeks later to make it official. Before the state board of education’s vote, Worcester County Public Schools were set to begin with masks encouraged, but not required.
Taylor has said that the mask mandate, which eases quarantine requirements for close contacts, have been working to help keep schools open and operating.