While a handful of parents who spoke this week about Worcester County Public Schools officials’ decision not to mandate masks for the return to school were not all in agreement, they did have one common goal: protecting the health and safety of their children.
Some believe the best way to do that is by requiring masks for everyone, while others argued that the face coverings cause more harm than good.
“I am aware that Worcester County public schools successfully returned to in-person learning last spring and I applaud you all for that,” said Rebecca Peters, a parent of two young children entering Ocean City Elementary School this year, during a call-in board of education meeting Tuesday.
“I’m also aware that masks were required for all adults and students,” she continued. “There’s no doubt that masking contributed to this success with in-person learning.”
Peters’ said her youngest son has Down syndrome and she is concerned that he is more susceptible to complications from covid.
For Karen Abbott, the health complications from wearing masks was more concerning.
“This is breathing in your own carbon dioxide which is neither safe nor effective,” she said. “If the school were to mandate it, it would be causing more physiological and psychological effects, social isolation, loneliness … Also contributing to the mental health.”
Karen Bontempo was “appalled” last year when washing her teenagers’ masks because of how “disgusting” they were, indicating they were breathing in the filth all day. She also cited data stating the very low rate of covid infections among children and said reports show the masks that are worn are not effective in protecting against very small viral particles.
Ray Russell, a parent with a kindergartner starting at Showell Elementary, expressed concern over the surge of the delta variant and the fact that children cannot be vaccinated.
He and other mask advocates cited recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics that everyone wear masks indoors — vaccinated or not — in areas with substantial and high transmission rates. Currently, Worcester County is in the high transmission category based on the number of recorded cases.
Superintendent Lou Taylor and members of the board of education listened to the comments and said they will take them all into account.
Officials released the return to schools plan late Tuesday morning, just before the public portion of the board of education meeting. And while the plan is not a board action item, members of the public were able to speak on it during the meeting.
The plan includes guidance not only for masking — which officials “highly recommend” but do not require indoors — but also for distancing, cleaning, ventilation, screening and other precautionary measures.
It is an updated version of the plan released last school year when students first returned to the classrooms from virtual learning.
The initial approach staggered their return and included strict distancing guidelines as well as mask mandates for everyone at all times except during lunch. As numbers began improving, students were permitted to remove their masks outdoors.
The school year ended with mask mandates still in place, but rules were relaxed soon after for students and staff at summer academies because of vaccine availabilities and low case numbers.
Over the summer, students have been distanced 3 or 6 feet. And for anyone who is not vaccinated, including students under 12 who are too young to get the shot, it was “highly recommended” that masks be worn. However it was not required and officials were not policing it.
Virtual school will also be offered this year in Worcester County but the deadline for students to opt in has passed.
According to a presentation during Tuesday’s meeting, the number of students who signed up for the option, which will more closely mirror a regular classroom than before, was low, with 25 students in kindergarten through fifth grades and 53 in sixth through 12th grades signing up.