The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday voted to end the district’s mask mandate after weeks of debate that divided the community.
Following the unanimous vote, Montgomery County Public Schools’ mask mandate will be lifted effective immediately. The student board member, Hana O’Looney, was not present.
The meeting was tense, prompting intervention by security officers multiple times. Two district leaders chastised members of the crowd for interrupting and “disrespecting” testimony, particularly from students.
School board President Brenda Wolff threatened to “clear the room” after observers laughed at and booed testimony from people who favored keeping the district’s mask mandate.
The school board’s decision came after decisions to lift state and county mandates in recent weeks. Those limits and guidance were at the foundation of the district’s rationale in requiring masks in its facilities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week also updated its guidance to say it no longer recommends universal masking in schools — only in high-risk areas. Montgomery County is considered low-risk.
MCPS has required masks in its facilities since schools reopened in March 2021 after a nearly yearlong closure due to COVID-19.
Some community members pressured the district to move faster to remove its mandate, while others cautioned against the decision because they feel it could put immunocompromised students at greater risk of illness.
During a meeting in late February, four days after the state Board of Education voted to end the statewide mandate, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the district wanted to wait until a state legislative committee affirmed the decision before MCPS considered changes locally.
Two days later, the committee voted to end the state’s school mask mandate immediately.
Still, MCPS said the school board would not make a decision until Tuesday’s meeting. MCPS released a statement on Feb. 26 saying the board was “anticipated” to vote in favor of removing the mandate at the meeting.
Some board members defended the delay by saying some families might need time to mentally and emotionally prepare.
Community members have shared varying opinions about the mandate.
Many have called for the end of the mandate, citing concerns that covering young students’ faces impairs their ability to learn critical social skills.
Some have pointed out that MCPS could have made face coverings optional earlier, according to state guidelines. Before the state board voted to end its mask mandate, it created “off ramps” for districts to use to lift their mandates if certain vaccination or transmission levels were met.
MCPS met the metrics weeks ago, which is a fact district leaders have acknowledged publicly.
They have not said why the district didn’t use the off ramps and instead waited until 11 days after the state legislative committee’s decision.
Several county school districts in Maryland have already switched to making mask use optional, including Frederick, Anne Arundel and Howard.
In a statement to Bethesda Beat on Friday, prior to the school board’s vote on Tuesday, Jennifer Martin, president of the county’s teachers union, said the organization supports the decision.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, MCEA has consistently taken the position that we should follow the guidance of the CDC and state and local health officials,” Martin said. “Given that the CDC, state, and county are relaxing masking protocols, the union agrees with the MCPS Board’s expected lifting of the mask mandate.”
On Tuesday morning, MCEA sent a “corrected” statement, saying it “does not object” to the decision, rather than agreeing with it.
“Many educators are looking forward to relaxing the rules around masking. 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 updated statement said.
Some families have said ending the mask mandate puts students with disabilities at risk.
Peter Witzler said the move will force his family to make “an impossible decision” for his 6-year-old son, Jackson, a first-grade student in MCPS.
Jackson has spina bifida and was happy to return to school when he was vaccinated. Knowing everyone would be wearing masks was an important factor in Witzler feeling comfortable with the return, he said.
Now, the family must choose between “risking Jackson’s educational progress or knowingly sending him to an unsafe learning environment,” Witzler said.
More than 500 people had signed an online petition as of Monday afternoon asking MCPS to keep its mask mandate.
She cited the CDC guidance, which at the time still recommended universal masking, and the comfort the extra safety measure adds for some students and employees.
She said at the time: “The last thing I want is for schools to be a source of anxiety for our students and it feels like making masks optional because of all the messaging, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, that my mask not only protects me, it protects my community …
“That’s still a lingering sentiment. Regardless of what data says, perception is reality for students and families. I’m really afraid that if we get rid of the mask mandate, it’s going to cause a lot of fear for our students and families.”
In the days that followed, a video of her comments was posted on social media. Many people who replied attacked O’Looney’s opinion and mocked her name.
Tuesday’s meeting was tense from the beginning. The first person who testified was asked several times to keep his mask over his mouth and nose, but he did not comply. A security staff member approached the man when his time to speak was over, but he continued speaking anyway.
The security officer had to intervene to cut off another speaker’s microphone later.
Midway through public comment, after members of the audience laughed at and booed several video testimonies from people who favor keeping the mask mandate, Wolff threatened to clear the audience from the room if they didn’t “stop being disrespectful.” Members of the crowd had booed testimony by students, which Wolff and other MCPS leaders took issue with.
McKnight appeared emotional as she addressed the behavior of the crowd.
“Whenever a student makes a testimony, we respect that testimony whether we agree or disagree,” she said. “It’s a child and a student in this school system.”
Board member Lynne Harris turned around in her chair to face the crowd directly. She forcefully said she was “incredibly disappointed” in their behavior. Some in the crowd began shouting back at her.
The crowd largely cleared the room following public comment.
What to know
Some important information related to the end of MCPS’ mask mandate:
Athletics/extracurriculars: Masks were made optional as of March 1 for athletes, coaches and officials during practices, games and team events.
That extends to students on team benches and as people go to and from locker rooms.
People who are not fully vaccinated are still “strongly encouraged” to wear masks indoors, the athletic department said.
Buses: Masks will not be required on school buses.
What are MCPS’ current quarantine guidelines: Students who test positive for COVID-19 are required to quarantine for five days. 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 “strongly recommends” they take a rapid test before returning to school. The district will provide the rapid test, leaders said at a recent board meeting.
Unvaccinated students who need to quarantine due to an exposure to the virus have to do so for five days.
If they do not have symptoms, they can return to school on the sixth day, according to MCPS. They, too, are encouraged to take a rapid test before returning.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org