DENTON — Masks are now required for all individuals inside Caroline County Public Schools buildings, regardless of vaccination status, when students are present. The announcement took place during a special meeting of the Board of Education on Au. 17.
The board had received the latest numbers on COVID-19 virus transmission and local vaccination levels on Friday, prompting the meeting. The only item on the agenda was, “Masking discussion for SY22”.
Dr. Derek Simmons, interim superintendent, discussed the details of this decision with the Board.
“We are laser focused on our primary goal of keeping the school doors open five full days a week for in-person learning for all students,” he said. “Given the current circumstances, we have a much better chance of meeting that goal if everyone is wearing a mask while indoors.”
The move is a change from recent plans.
“As you all know, we had our normal board meeting a couple of weeks ago, and with the information at the time, we felt comfortable recommending, but not requiring, masks,” Board President James A. Newcomb Jr. said. “Things are changing in our county and around us.”
Some of those changes were illustrated by slides displayed during the meeting, one of which showed positivity rates climbing and a vaccination rate among youths ages 12-17 at 21 percent.
“Caroline County’s positivity rate has been steadily increasing,” Dr. Simmons said. “I don’t raise that as a point of fear, I raise that as a point of fact.”
Over the previous week, Dr. Simmons said, the county had alternated between substantial and high rates of transmission. While he said he recognized that vaccination is a personal issue, and that parents have the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children against the virus, “There is an impact” on the situation when vaccines are not accepted.
At the time of the meeting, Caroline had the second-lowest vaccination rate in the state. “Somerset, I believe, was lower,” he said.
Recent data showed Dorchester County’s full vaccinated at 47.1 percent of the population, with a death rate of 2.1 percent. Wicomico County’s was 43.5 percent, with a death rate of 2.2 percent. In Somerset, the numbers are 38.5 and 1.5 percent, while in Talbot they are 60.9 and 2.0 percent.
Data from the Dorchester County Health Department showed on Aug. 18 that there had been 3,393 confirmed cases in the county, with 93 active, four hospitalized and 56 deaths over the course of the pandemic.
Caroline County’s decision
The move was based on several factors:
• Children 11 and younger are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and significant numbers of students 12 and older remain unvaccinated.
• The Delta variant spreads more easily than previous variants, and can be spread by vaccinated individuals.
• Throughout the summer, the number of young people contracting the virus has increased.
• According to CDC’s data tracker, Caroline County has been in the substantial or high range for community transmission since early August.
• Based on CDC contact tracing guidance, if an unmasked student tests positive, nearby students must quarantine, even if they were wearing masks. However, if both the positive case and the contacts are masked, the contacts may stay in school.
‘Can’t please everyone’
During a discussion followed Dr. Simmons’ recommendation, Board Member Arevia Wayman said, “I think we have to remember that, regardless of what the decision is, there is going to be someone — some child, staff member, teacher, parent — who is not going to be happy, if they wear masks or if they don’t wear masks. You can’t please everyone in a situation like this. We have to do what we feel is the best for our students overall, in order for them to gain the best education they can.”
Board Member Mark Jones made a motion to allow five days for public comment.
“This is new to a lot of people,” he said. “We took a stance on this at our last meeting. Since the weekend, we’ve changed that stance. I talked to a teacher today who didn’t even know we were contemplating masks. I don’t want to blindside anybody. I want to allow the public to at least be able to speak.”
After discussion, and Dr. Simmons’ saying that Maryland Department of Health rules would not change regardless of comments, the motion failed 3-1, with Mr. Jones in support and members Ms. Wayman, Richard Barton and Donna DiGiacomo opposed.
Ms. DiGiacomo said, “This is not permanent, just until we can get to a safer place.”
Support and opposition
When word of the decision began to circulate on social media, parents shared their views.
From an account named Justin Jessica Cummings, came the following: “My son is 6 and got it in January with me. My other children did not. I was going to make my kids wear them anyway since it was mandatory for the bus and I’d feel better since they did last year as well. We made out ok thank goodness, but from what I have read the new strain is reaching children more. I don’t get into the politics or science of it whatsoever, I just take precautions for them regardless. Sanitizer, Lysol and showers when they get home like we always have.”
Raymond Riddleberger wrote, “This is absolutely wrong. You folks are going to force an entire generation of children to loose their identity behind a mask.”
“It goes without saying that we all love our kids and want them to have the best school year possible,” Sarah Minner Dahl wrote. “And I know that the teachers, administrators, and school board members share those feelings, because they’ve devoted their lives and careers to our kids and our community. I don’t envy anyone tasked with making these difficult decisions. My family will be happy to mask up, and we will support our Caroline County Public Schools any way we can.”
Dorchester Board of Education
The Dorchester County Board of Education will meet on Aug. 19 at 6 p.m. Deputy Health Officer Dr. Casey Scott is on the agenda to give “Recommendations for COVID prevention for the 2021-2022 School Year.”
She will be followed by Director of Leadership and School Improvement Regina Teat, who will present “DCPS 2021 Return to School Plan”.
A statement on the agenda regarding resumption of classes in Dorchester County said, “Students attend school buildings each day with enhanced cleaning and hand washing. Stay tuned regarding mask wearing. We plan to follow recommended safety guidelines.”
The meeting at 700 Glasgow St. in Cambridge will allow limited in-person attendance. All meetings are livestreamed at townhallstreams.com/towns/dorchesterboe.