2021 | Schools

Unvaccinated students, staff should wear masks in the fall, county health officer says

MCPS plans to finalize guidance in August

share this

File photo

While Montgomery County Public Schools leaders finalize mask requirements for the fall semester, the county’s top health official said this week he believes unvaccinated staff and students should continue to wear face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Health Officer Travis Gayles told the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday that “any individual who is not vaccinated should continue to wear a face covering when around other individuals … regardless of whether you’ve chosen to not get the vaccine or if you’re not eligible to receive the vaccine, and particularly as it relates to children under the age of 12.”

In an interview with Bethesda Beat on Wednesday, Gayles said he will provide advice to MCPS, but the decision about mask requirements is up to school district leaders.

Gayles has usually taken a more conservative route to reopening than other state and national agencies, but his masking recommendation for the fall is consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance released last week.

In its new guidance, which prioritizes getting students back into classrooms full-time, the CDC wrote that, in general, vaccinated people do not need to wear masks. It also says masks are not needed outdoors in uncrowded areas, but school districts should consider universal face covering mandates in some situations, like in elementary schools where most students are not yet eligible for vaccines.

The CDC guidance also says masks could be required on school buses and in communities with significant spread of variants of COVID-19, regardless of people’s vaccination status.

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Erin Sauber-Schatz, a CDC official who oversaw the school guidance, said it is up to school districts how to track or verify that students and staff members have been vaccinated, and, if it is not possible, they should consider universal mask mandates.

In recent weeks, MCPS Acting Superintendent Monfia McKnight has said the district planned to keep a mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors in the fall. But, she said, the policy could change based on updated guidance.

The school board is scheduled to meet on Thursday afternoon to discuss its fall reopening plan. But a final decision about mask requirements is not expected until August.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said that 90% of county residents 12 years old or older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and about 80% are fully vaccinated. That is the highest percentage in the country in jurisdictions with 300,000 people or more, he said, citing CDC data.

Community members’ opinions about mask requirements in MCPS vary greatly.

In public testimony submitted in advance of Thursday’s school board meeting, some said the district should not require face coverings.

Kara McNulty, a parent of two MCPS students, said that if there is a mask requirement, the school board should outline specific metrics the county needs to meet to eliminate the mandate.

“It is very hard to get COVID in Montgomery County and we should allow our children to be unmasked to allow for better educational experience and a better social experience and a better mental health experience,” McNulty said. “… We should prioritize the students and allow them to go to school unmasked.”

Others, like Julia Martin of Silver Spring, wrote that masks are a necessary precaution to keep as more students return to buildings.

“It is vital that every possible precaution is taken to keep our students safe, as well as our teachers and staff who may be unable to get vaccinated or who are particularly vulnerable to infection,” Martin wrote. “While some may chafe at children wearing masks, I assure you that our children have adapted well to wearing masks for long periods of time.”

Ashwin Dharmadhikari, the parent of a second-grade student who has severe asthma, added that continuing to require masks in elementary schools will help keep children like hers safe.

“Maintaining mask requirements allows MCPS to send a strong message to all residents that going back to school does not have to be at the expense of unvaccinated children,” Dharmadhikari wrote.

Bethesda Beat Reporter Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

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