This story was updated at 6:20 p.m. July 27, 2021, to add more comments and to clarify the CDC guidance and at 8:25 p.m. with more details. The story was updated again at 10:05 a.m. July 28, 2021, to clarify the purpose of the vote.
The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday voted unanimously to support the district’s plan to require face masks indoors for all students and employees this fall.
“I know this is hard for some of our students and staff and families, but of course, safety comes first,” board member Rebecca Smondrowski said.
Students will also be required to wear masks on school buses, but they are not required outdoors. MCPS strongly recommends that unvaccinated people wear a face covering.
The new mandate is subject to change if federal, state or county guidance changes, according to a PowerPoint presentation shared Tuesday on fall reopening plans.
The first day of school for the 2021-22 academic year is Aug. 30.
The school board’s vote on Tuesday was to endorse the district’s plan for requiring masks, as a public indication of the board’s support, according to MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.
The face-covering requirement comes as COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County increase and the Delta variant spreads across the country.
However, the school board has signaled throughout the summer that the district would stick with a policy of requiring masks. MCPS officials said at a school board meeting in early June that they were planning on a mask mandate in the fall, but that most other restrictions would be lifted, such as class-size limits and cleaning schedules.
“I know our community is eagerly awaiting full return, five days a week, as normal as possible. And I realize masks are not 100% normal, the way we operated before, but health and safety has to be a priority,” board member Pat O’Neill said Tuesday. “Back in May, none of us knew anything about the Delta variant. And you know, things are evolving.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance on Tuesday, urging those who have been vaccinated to wear masks indoors in areas with high infection rates. The agency now recommends that children wear masks at school in the fall.
The MCPS decision also aligns with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for universal masking in schools.
Children younger than 12 aren’t yet eligible for a vaccine. Children at least 12 years old can get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Monifa McKnight, MCPS’ interim superintendent, said during Tuesday’s meeting that around 45% to 52% of students in the district are younger than 12 and unvaccinated.
“As we think about prioritizing bringing (students) back into school for in-person instruction in the fall, to be able to prosper and learn academically and thrive in those environments, we do have to take into serious consideration what that means,” McKnight said of the unvaccinated student population.
Smondrowski said she hopes that as the school year comes closer, MCPS can be more flexible and accommodate the needs of students and families who may not want to come back to school wearing masks.
“This is still uncharted territory. This is still unprecedented times,” Smondrowski said.
For the 2021-22 school year, MCPS will return to full-time in-person learning five days a week. But a virtual academy, with full-time online learning, will be offered to students who prefer not to attend school in person or who have a health condition that prevents it.
Students must apply for admission to the academy and be approved to participate.
For students enrolled in the virtual academy, in grades K-8, there is an opportunity to transfer to in-person learning at the end of each marking period. For students in high school, the transfer window is at the end of each semester.
Board member Lynne Harris said it’s important to be hypervigilant about viral transmission in schools.
“What we want to make sure doesn’t happen is that people that come into the schools with the virus and share that with others,” she said.
McKnight said that in-person summer school instruction is an example of face coverings limiting transmission of the coronavirus.
During summer school, all students and employees are required to wear face coverings in the building.
McKnight said that of the 26,000 students who came to summer school this year, as of July 23, there were just 13 positive cases of COVID-19 recorded.
“That’s excellent, and I think that’s actually due to the mask wearing,” board President Brenda Wolff said.
The Prince George’s County school system announced on Monday that it would require students to wear masks in the fall.