Catherine Taylor, a student at Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, works in a science lab during a class at the school last year. Students will return Tuesday for the 2021-22 school year on Tuesday with a mask mandate in place for everyone indoors.

All Worcester County public schools, and one private one, are no longer giving people a choice about masking inside buildings following intervention from the state board of education last week.

“[On Aug. 26], the Maryland State Board of Education held a special meeting, where they voted to pass an emergency regulation requiring universal masking in all Maryland schools,” county schools Superintendent Lou Taylor said in a message on the district’s website on Aug. 27. “In light of this vote, beginning on Monday, August 30, all students and staff – regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear face coverings in our school buildings.”

The decision changes the district’s initial plan to “highly recommend” masking for everyone indoors but not issue a mandate, which would have left the decision up to parents and guardians.

As defense for not issuing a firm mandate, Taylor said on Aug. 18 that he had confidence in the protocols that were put in place to keep students and staff members healthy when they return to school. He also said he expected the county’s covid positivity rate to decrease once the summer tourist season ends.

But the state board’s 12-1-1 vote for the emergency order, which came after members’ expressed concerns about covid outbreaks in classrooms, Taylor changed the plan.

Although he is not required to make the change until the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review votes to make it law, the writing was on the wall. The committee will meet Sept. 14 to discuss the order, and members are expected to pass it.

The order requires masking for all, vaccinated or not, indoors, for 180 days. Members of the state board agreed, though, to revisit the order and reassess the situation every 30 days.

In Worcester County, the directives now are almost identical to the ones in place when students left school at the end of the 2020-21 school year. They will be required to wear masks at all times, except during lunch, designated mask breaks, and while outdoors. They will also be required to fill out health screening forms every morning.

Taylor said in his message that universal masking is a “critical piece to keep in-person learning available to all students.”

He pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued new quarantine rules for students, which allows them to stay in school longer if a peer tests positive for covid while 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 to quarantine for 10 to 14 days. Under the new guidelines, any student who is 3 feet or more from a student with covid will not be required to quarantine unless they are symptomatic.

Annette Wallace, the district’s chief operating and academic officer for grades nine through 12, said this rule has already helped keep student athletes from having to quarantine.

“We had four kids in one day who were covid-positive in one school — only athletes are there — and a conservative guess would be we would have sent 76 kids home that day,” Wallace said of the action that would have been taken if masks were not worn. “That’s conservative, that’s not counting lunch shifts, that’s not counting other places.”

Student athletes and coaches recently returned for practices and Wallace said it has been “going well,” but that some challenges have occurred.

“Our coaches are doing a nice job of keeping our students distanced, but I was an athletic coach myself and I can tell you when you start playing games, it’s very difficult to keep students distanced because the nature of the game is students interacting with each other,” she said. “… We continue to have a lot of strong protocols in place. We aren’t doing broad testing, we are doing testing if we have an outbreak on a team. We have had an outbreak on a team last week and we did test every athlete on that team because those are our protocols.”

An “outbreak,” she said, is classified as two students in a class or on a team that test positive for covid who are not from the same household.

Other districts across the state that have already begun classes have struggled with outbreaks and forced quarantines since reopening. Wallace said, though, with the CDC’s new guidelines, that she does not see the virus spreading in Worcester County Schools that way.

“If kids are quarantined, if they are wearing masks, and I can’t speak for what went on in another county, but if they’re quarantined with masks and everyone is following safety protocols, it’s something they did outside of school, not inside of school,” she said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, we’re in a position where we need people to make good choices and be honest on that symptom screener.”

As for feedback, Wallace said she has heard from both sides.

“To be honest, before when we were making masks optional, nearly every call that I was taking and nearly every email I was taking were from those who did not want it to be masks optional,” she said. “And certainly since Mr. Taylor made that announcement, I think the calls have gone in the opposite direction. We live in a very conservative community and unfortunately I think this whole masking idea has become a political issue for some strange reason … politics and student safety should not mix. And so, I’m really confused and sometimes befuddled at why there’s so much public outcry, either way, that seems to be super-political.”

A small group of people also publicly expressed their disdain for mask mandates earlier this week outside of the Worcester County Board of Education office in Snow Hill. Carrie Sterrs, the coordinator of public relations & special programs, said in an email this week that employees saw the protestors with signs but did not engage them.

Before the state board’s vote last week, Worcester County was one of five counties in the state without a mask mandate. The others were Carroll, Cecil, Dorchester and Somerset.

In Carroll County, according to a report from WBAL 11, school board members are standing firm with their original plan to make masks optional until the General Assembly committee’s vote. A social media post from Somerset County Public Schools shows the district has also not changed its stance.

As for private schools, Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Worcester County is now requiring masks for all indoors, while Worcester Preparatory School is still “strongly recommending” them.

“We are strongly recommending vaccines and masks,” said John McDonald, the head of school at Worcester Prep. “We’re just saying strongly recommend, we’re not saying not require, we’re saying strongly recommend.”

He added that the decision is always subject to change.

“This is a very fluid situation,” he said. “We’re going to be meeting … it could change, you never know what’s going to happen.”

The current directive comes with some exemptions, which include requiring masks for all students on buses and requiring them for students in lower grades while they walk in the hallways and congregate in common areas.

McDonald said about 480 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attend Worcester Prep, with about 70 people on the teaching staff. Because of those low numbers, the school is able offer more distancing options.

At Most Blessed Sacrament, Amanda Evans, the director of admissions and advancement, said the Diocese of Wilmington changed its stance for the Maryland school following the state board’s vote last week. Initially, masks were optional for Most Blessed Sacrament because Gov. Larry Hogan has not issued a state mandate. The state board’s decision tipped the scales, though, and now all of the nearly 240 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade must cover their faces indoors.

Evans said the rules will be pretty much in line with the ones followed at the end of last school year, with plans to get outside as much as possible to give everyone mask breaks.

“Masks are not required outside,” Evans said. “We’re fortunate we have 17 acres and we’re probably going to be outside quite a bit this year.”

She said students will also be able to move around inside more this year as well because of sanitizing and distancing measures that have been implemented.

“That’s one thing we’re excited about, that the children will be able to move from classroom to classroom,” she said.

Classes begin at Most Blessed Sacrament and all Worcester County public schools for all students on Tuesday. At Worcester Prep, students returned in staggered groups this week, with everyone attending together for the first time Tuesday.

This story appears in the printed version of the Ocean City Today on Sept. 3, 2021.

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