Montgomery County Public Schools will continue to require face coverings in its buildings throughout the summer, despite guidance from the state that eliminates the requirement, beginning Thursday.
MCPS, Maryland’s largest school district, plans to require masks in the fall, as well, regardless of students and staff members’ vaccination status, although that is “subject to change,” according to Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight.
Masks would not be required outdoors, but “strongly encouraged,” she said.
A final decision about requirements for the fall is expected by August. The first day of school is Aug. 30.
In June, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the COVID-19 state of emergency would end on July 1, which ends the legal requirement for people to wear face coverings in schools.
Because more than 50% of Montgomery County residents have received a vaccine, local leaders have opted to fall in line with state restrictions after spending the bulk of the past year being more restrictive and reopening more slowly.
But during a school board meeting on Tuesday, when members questioned why MCPS plans to continue with its requirement, McKnight said the district needs more guidance from local health officials because they can issue guidance and mandates that are stricter than Maryland’s.
“Every time the governor makes a mandate or statute, then it goes to local jurisdictions, who determine how to translate that,” McKnight said.
In a text message Tuesday night, Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Mary Anderson wrote that Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles and Director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Earl Stoddard were not aware of plans to issue stricter guidelines.
County Executive Marc Elrich said on Wednesday that whether to require masks in schools in the fall is “ultimately the school system’s decision. ”
“We never ordered anybody (to) close. We never demand that they do anything,” Elrich said. “They are always independent from us. … You’ve gotta ask the school system what they’re gonna do. But for the rest of the county, we’ll do what we think is right. And if it winds up being a different approach, so be it.”
Some health experts across the world have raised concerns about a more contagious variant of the virus, commonly known as the “Delta variant.” Some officials with the World Health Organization last week suggested that people “play it safe” and return to wearing masks indoors, even if they are fully vaccinated.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week that the organization is leaving it to local officials to set mask guidance.
Elrich said Montgomery County leaders are monitoring the Delta variant and could consider reinstating some form of a mask mandate if the variant becomes a problem locally — specifically, if vaccinated people continue to get sick.
On Tuesday, McKnight told the school board that MCPS intends to follow the county guidance. She said Gayles is “collecting information” and will attend a meeting in August.
But MCPS does have the authority to keep its mask mandate, regardless of local regulations.
Officials said they will also consider the availability of the vaccine to school-aged children and the overall vaccination status of county residents when making its decision.
County health officials reported this week that 88% of county residents older than 12 have received at least one dose of a vaccine. People younger than 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine.
“All of this is subject to change,” McKnight said. “We’re continuing with the guidance we have right now.”
MCPS has said for months that it is planning for a nearly normal school year in the fall, aside from the anticipation of a mask mandate.
A video shown to the board on Tuesday showed that schools will return to full in-person instruction five days per week, with no more capacity restrictions. The use of cubbies and lockers will resume, and weekly health screenings and in-school COVID-19 testing will end.
MCPS will also offer a full-time virtual option for some students with health concerns or other extenuating circumstances. As of Tuesday, about 1,300 students (less than 1% of the student body) had applied for the virtual program, according to MCPS officials. Applications will be accepted until Friday.
The virtual option recently received approval from the Maryland State Department of Education.
MCPS Director of Technology Integration and Support Tara Trenkamp said the district will monitor the state Board of Education’s next meeting to see if any additional restrictions are imposed on virtual academies. But she said the district is prepared to adjust to “stay in alignment with local expectations and state expectations.”
Asked by Bethesda Beat last month about virtual academies across the state, Hogan said he believes schools “should be open 100%.” He did not comment about whether he believes virtual academies should be offered to some students or if there should be a cap on the percentage of a student body that can enroll in an all-virtual option.
“The state Board of (Education) would make that determination. … I don’t control the state Board of (Education),” Hogan said. “I don’t know what they might do in a future vote.”
The state board’s next meeting is scheduled for July 27. An agenda was not available on Wednesday.
Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org