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The Montgomery County school board is split about whether the state’s largest school district should end its mask mandate.

During a meeting on Thursday, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the district wants to wait until a state legislative committee on Friday affirms the decision of the state Board of Education to remove the statewide mandate before considering what to do locally.

Two Montgomery County school board members — Rebecca Smondrowski and Karla Silvestre — said they are in favor of lifting the district’s mandate, while the student board member, Hana O’Looney, said she is opposed.

Board member Lynne Harris said she wants to review countywide COVID-19 data when the board meets on March 8, which would be about two weeks after Montgomery County’s indoor mask mandate was lifted.

Board members Scott Joftus, Brenda Wolff and Shebra Evans did not comment during the meeting. Board member Judy Docca was absent from Thursday’s meeting.

Board members’ differing opinions on masking mirrors the range of views in the greater community.

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During the public comment portion of Thursday’s meeting, a handful of people spoke about the issue.

Some called on the board to immediately end its mandate, citing concerns that covering young students’ faces impairs their ability to learn critical social skills. Others said keeping the mask mandate is important to keeping higher-risk community members safe.

On Tuesday, the Maryland State Board of Education voted to rescind its statewide mask mandate, with several members saying that they feel it’s time to let local school boards make their own decisions.

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A joint legislative committee must approve the rescission. That committee will meet Friday afternoon.

The committee — the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee, made up of 19 state lawmakers — can determine what date the mask mandate would be lifted statewide, according to legal counsel for the state school board.

State school board members set March 1 as a “target date” for the mandate to be lifted.

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In response to McKnight’s recommendation that the district wait for the committee’s decision to determine what to do next, Smondrowski said she was disappointed MCPS doesn’t already have “an offboarding process,” or withdrawal plan, in place.

“I was hopeful we would have had our offboarding in place, so that if tomorrow the legislature approved this, we could make a determination from there,” she said. “My concern with waiting is that, while I do appreciate and respect the idea of giving our community time to adjust and be prepared, I would also think people would have thought we were going that direction anyway.”

Silvestre, the other board member who voiced support for making masks optional in MCPS, said the district needs to clearly communicate why the move would be safe “and begin to prepare them mentally for that.”

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O’Looney said she wants to keep MCPS’ mask mandate, in part because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends masking in schools.

She also said there is unease among some students and staff members about no longer wearing face coverings. She noted that last month students at several schools staged protests, saying MCPS did not have enough COVID-19 mitigation measures in place.

“The repeated theme of today’s board meeting is we just want our schools to be comfortable spaces for students, and the last thing I want is for schools to be a source of anxiety for our students,” said O’Looney, who added that she will not be present for the March 8 meeting, when a decision is made. “Regardless of what the data says, perception is reality for students and families. I’m really afraid if we get rid of the mask mandate, it’s going to cause a lot of fear for students and families.”

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The state board had already approved what it called “off ramps” that districts could use to lift their mandates, if certain vaccination and transmission metrics were reached.

According to the regulation, districts could decide to lift their mandates if at least 80% of the county’s population is vaccinated against COVID-19 or at least 80% of students and employees are fully vaccinated.

A school district that doesn’t meet those rates could still lift its mandate if its county has 14 consecutive days of moderate or low transmission, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Montgomery County’s vaccination rate is higher than 85%, meaning it already meets the “off ramp” to consider removing its mask mandate, as outlined by the state board. MCPS staff members acknowledged the fact on Thursday, but did not say why the district wants to wait for the state mandate to be lifted.

Quarantines

Also during Thursday’s meeting, MCPS leaders announced changes to the district’s quarantine guidelines, bringing the district in line with national, state and local recommendations.

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Beginning March 1, students who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine for five days (rather than 10). If they are no longer symptomatic, they can return to school on the sixth day, but must continue to wear a mask for five additional days.

MCPS will “strongly recommend” they take a rapid test before returning to school. The district will provide the rapid test, leaders said.

Unvaccinated students who need to quarantine due to an exposure to the virus will need to do so for five days, rather than 10, beginning March 1, as well.

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If they do not have symptoms, they can return to school on the sixth day, according to MCPS. They, too, will be encouraged to take a rapid test before returning.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com