Changing guidance leads to a repealed mask mandate


Photo by Jeremy Fredricks

Students in room 274 during third period on March 9, the first day students in MCPS had the option to go maskless. It was a mixed bag, with some students choosing to go maskless, while others kept them on.

By Jeremy Fredricks, Editor-in-Chief

On March 8, the Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) unanimously voted to remove the mask mandate in MCPS schools and on the school system’s buses and other transportation services, beginning immediately. The Board voted for the measure, following changes in mask-wearing guidelines, but emphasized that masks could be brought back if COVID-19 spread changes.

The mask mandate ended in Montgomery County, Md. on Feb. 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed their mask-wearing guidelines on Feb. 25 and the State Board of Education lifted its statewide mandate on March 1.

“I have always supported following CDC guidance. When their guidance changed on February [25], I supported lifting the mask mandate,” Montgomery County Board of Education Member Dr. Scott Joftus said. 

Following the updated guidance from the nation’s public health agency, the BOE, alongside MCPS, released a statement on Feb. 26 saying they “anticipated” voting to make “masks optional in MCPS facilities” at their March 8 meeting.

“Many critical announcements had occurred [during the week beginning Feb. 21] at the state and local level regarding a change in guidance concerning masks. We wanted to ensure we connected with our community to say we (the Board of Education) will take up this issue,” BOE President Brenda Wolff said. “Communications and transparency are important and the community wants to know that we are on top of these issues.”

MCPS has sent out messages explaining the process to the community to keep them informed.

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), the teachers union with over 14,000 members, supports lifting the mask mandate. President Jennifer Martin says that the Union has followed the position of the public health officials throughout the pandemic.

“Given that the CDC, state and county are relaxing masking protocols, the union agrees with the MCPS Board,” Martin said. “We have been in frequent communication with members of the Board, the superintendent and elected county officials due to the changes in health policy.”

WCHS has made changes to be a mask-optional building following the decision. In every place besides the health room, masks are optional, but the school will still provide them at entrances and exits for those who would like to wear one. 

“We have to follow the science and you know certainly if people are still concerned about their own personal safety, then I think they would just need to wear a mask,” WCHS Principal John Taylor said. “If you’re wearing your own mask, yes, it’s not as good as everybody wearing a mask but you’re going to be pretty okay. It’s the non-mask wearers that you have to worry about.”

Taylor is recommending that students that are concerned or high-risk continue to wear a mask. The school has a high vaccination rate – The Churchill Observer previously-reported that it was between 94 and 98 percent — but some community members are still concerned about the pandemic.

“For now, I would like to keep the mask mandate,” WCHS junior Olivia Wang, who plans to continue wearing her mask, said. “I think there’s a safer option for me and that’s what I can choose to do. Everyone else can make the best option for them.”

Joftus shares that feeling. He is concerned about the safety of his daughter, a junior at Walt Whitman High School, and expects her to continue masking.

Taylor said that there is very little the school can do if students disagree on mask-wearing. WCHS cannot require students to wear masks in a traditional classroom, although there may be more leeway in a music or physical education class, because there is increased particle transmission.

“Even if someone would like them to wear a mask, we can’t mandate them to wear masks,” Taylor said. “You can, you know, choose not to hang out with somebody that’s like that, but if we’re sitting in our seats…then you should be perfectly fine. That’s what the science tells us.”

It has been nearly two years to the day since MCPS first shut down schools. Ever since the return to the building last March, masks have been required. In recent days, since the county dropped its mask mandate, community members have been able to go out maskless in public and are excited for the opportunity to do the same at WCHS. Senior Steven Haramis, who previously had COVID-19 and had a booster shot, is planning to go maskless.

“[If] people don’t feel like they should wear masks, they don’t have to. And if people are immunocompromised they can wear a mask if they desire,” Haramis said. “Most of my family members have a strong immune system so I feel like I don’t need to wear one.”

Taylor is comparing the mask-optional policy at WCHS to the football games in the fall. Many students decided to not wear masks because games took place outside, where the risk of transmission is lower. There were no reports of bullying regarding attendees’ mask-wearing status and Taylor hopes that continues with the new policy. He plans to go maskless in small group settings, like meetings, but keep it on when he is interacting with larger groups.

“When I was standing watching the football games, I took my mask off,” Taylor said. “Even though we were outside, when I was in the middle of the crowd, doing chaperoning duties, I usually wore it just because there was a lot of kids.”

While some students have discussed not attending in-person classes, Taylor said that students have “no allowance” to not be in school because of the new policy. Students, as of now, are also unlikely to be able to get schedule changes based on if others are wearing masks or not.

“I don’t think we would open the door to that. It is so tight to do any kind of class changes even for…required reasons, like someone needs a credit,” Taylor said. 

The lifting of the mandate came a week after masks became optional for MCPS athletes to start their spring season. The vaccine requirement (with religious exemptions), decrease in community spread and fact that most spring sports occur outside contributed to the change. Fans at sporting events can also be maskless if they choose, a policy that extends to performances and on buses.

“Student-athletes have led the way with demonstrating their commitment to health and safety – both in competition and in the community – by complying with the vaccination requirement and following the procedures and protocols outlined in our Return to R.A.I.S.E. Plan,” MCPS Athletics Director Dr. Jeffrey Sullivan said. “Their dedication and resiliency provided a strong foundational base for the decision to move forward with the new mask guidance.”

MCPS also released updated guidelines on isolation and quarantine starting March 1. Only unvaccinated students have to quarantine if exposed. Students that test positive can return after five days if their symptoms improve, but would have to wear a mask for the following five days. 

Since there is support from the Union as a whole, there has been no discussion of a sick-out or vote of no confidence, something that was done during the surge of the Omicron variant in January. MCEA Union President Martin says that members are feeling the same way students are about lifting the mandate — some are ready to go maskless, while others want to keep their masks on.

“Many educators are looking forward to relaxing the rules around masking,” Martin said. “Others have concerns about what the change will mean for their own health and safety, or about the health and safety of vulnerable students and family members. The overwhelming majority of our members are fully vaccinated. We are advising our members with risk factors to speak with their supervisors to request accommodations to meet their health and safety needs.”

The Board also notes their priority is ensuring a safe environment for all. Even with the mask-optional policy, they are encouraging masking, alongside vaccines. This decision, like many during the pandemic, faced pushback from some, but President Wolff says the timing was right to remove the mandate with the recent decrease in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

“My interest is to ensure schools are safe for our students and staff for teaching and learning. All I can do is what I think is best based on the information I have,” Wolff said. “The education of students is too important to be relegated to the winds of public opinion.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘it is always the right time to do the right thing.’”

Taylor says that the data at WCHS shows lifting the mandate is coming at the right time. For most of the month of February, he said the school’s test positivity rate was under one percent and there was not a lot of community spread. He compares the feelings surrounding the end of the mandate to those when schools reopened at limited capacity last March or at full capacity in August.

“When we all came back for hybrid, it was a little unnerving for all of us. When we came here it was a little unnerving for all of us, like okay, now it’s 2,300 kids in the building,” Taylor said. “Each kind of step as we move out of this is going to be a little concerning, but I think within a few days, within a week, everyone will kind of get used to it. Those who want to wear masks will wear masks, those who don’t won’t and everyone will just kind of settle back into that new normal.”