CAMBRIDGE — Masks will not be required inside Dorchester County Public School (DCPS) buildings when classes resume Aug. 30 and 31 — but that could change if COVID-19 transmission begins to occur.
The members of the Dorchester County Board of Education met Aug. 19, and heard a range of opinions from political figures, health officials and parents, both for and against the idea of requiring masks on students to fight the spread of COVID-19.
As numbers of infections from the delta variant increase on the Eastern Shore and around the nation, educators elsewhere are faced with a similar decision — Caroline County last week decided to require masks, while Talbot, Wicomico and Somerset all opted to wait before making a move.
Health Department presentation
One of the first items on the agenda of the meeting — which went for almost three hours — was a recorded presentation by Deputy County Health Officer Dr. Casey Scott, titled, “Recommendations for COVID prevention for the 2021-2022 School Year.”
In a series of slides, Dr. Scott showed some of the changes and updates regarding the virus as they were provided in July by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the Maryland State Departments of Health and Education.
“Contrary to what we thought in the early stages of the pandemic, we do now know that children can certainly become infected, they can develop illness, and they can transmit COVID-19 to other people,” Dr. Scott said.
Symptoms can be similar to those found in adults, she said, adding, “However, it is known that children are more likely to be asymptomatic, which means having zero symptoms, or they have mild, non-specific symptoms,” such as headaches, or sore throats.
Children are less likely to develop severe symptoms or to die from COVID-19 than adults, Dr. Scott said. Data from the CDC showed 391 COVID deaths among those under the age of 18 through July 7.
“Disparities exist among Hispanic or Latino and Black or African-American children,” the slide showed. “Those with underlying medical conditions were more likely to need hospitalization.”
Dr. Scott summarized her remarks by recommending:
• Layers of preventive strategies
• Vaccination remains critical
Rep. Harris speaks
There were demonstrations outside the building by those both for and against the move. During the meeting, there were presentations, including one by Rep. Andy Harris (R-1). Mr. Harris, who is also a medical doctor, represents District 1 in the U.S. Congress.
“COVID is not more dangerous to children than the flu,” Rep. Harris said. He noted that about 400 children nationwide have died from the virus, but most of them also had other health issues. “I urge you to take that into consideration when you judge how dangerous it is to children.”
He continued, “Now, the reason why I’m here, I represent 12 counties, nine on the Eastern Shore, and I looked up what the education status of Dorchester County is. It ranks 20th in the state by one group, schooldigger.com, and another one where it didn’t even make the top 20. And of nine counties on the Shore, it’s seventh.”
“What you should be doing is spending all your time, laser focused, on improving performance in schools,” Rep. Harris said.
During the time alloted for public comment, several citizens spoke.
• “I’m here tonight to urge you to allow our children to remain maskless. That should be the parent and child’s choice,” Sarah Geer of Hurlock said. “I ask you to think about the psychological trauma that mask wearing causes for children.”
“When the FDA does approve a vaccine, I ask that you do not require it for our children. You will not win with my family and we will not comply.”
Ms. Geer said she had asked to see her children’s curriculums, but they had not been provided. “I am just blown away, because I’m curious about what there is to hide.”
• Sarah Gavian, a parent and chair of the Dorchester County Democratic Central Committee, said, “I have come to speak in favor of making masks an obligatory element of the layered COVID prevention approach described by [Assistant County Health Officer] Dr. Scott. My organization believes COVID remains a dangerous threat to our community.”
• Ted Bryant began by questioning points in curricula he had received from the schools, saying, “How in the hell did we ever get to this point? Teaching fourth and fifth graders about (various types of) sex? Give me a break.”
Referring to a questionnaire sent to students regarding their gender identity, Mr. Bryant said, “This is not what we expected when you got our votes. We did not approve this.”
Regarding masks, Mr. Bryant urged Superintendent W. David Bromwell and the board members to represent the majority of citizens who put them in their positions.
• Dr. Teresa Stafford, a retired DCPS educator, operates a summer and after-school tutoring academy. “As far as masks, we’ve had our kids in the program seven weeks. When the numbers went up, we immediately went to masking. Every day, 40-45 kids put on masks.”
• David Whitney spoke on behalf of the Republican Central Committee. Reading from the Maryland State Constitution, he said, the legislature “ought to encourage and diffuse knowledge and virtue.”
“You’re teaching sexually perverse practices to fourth and fifth graders,” Mr. Whitney said. “That’s not virtue.”
He said as a result of the board members’ sworn oaths to uphold the Maryland Constitution, “On Judgment Day, God will hold you accountable for what you did.”
• Lindsay Wheatley of Crapo spoke to the board, saying, “The community of parents who elected you are calling you to ensure that there are no more mask mandates, no more closed meetings, no more restricted meetings for this school year.”
After the public comments, Mr. Bromwell said the board had also received emailed remarks from citizens, all of which were opposed to masks.
Mr. Bromwell’s commitment
Reading from a prepared statement, he continued, “We have been very cautious by limiting the information we shared with you this summer. First, it gave you a break from me,” he said with a grin. “But this allowed our health officials to determine and share the best information we could, to start the school year safely and productively. This philosophy seemed to have played out correctly, as COVID-19 and its variants have crept back into our daily lives. It will again be part of another school year, causing extreme anxiety for everyone.”
He continued, “There is no question there remains a safety issue, but with everyone from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics stating that children need to be in school, Dorchester Public School will be doing just that, we’re coming back 100 percent. With this emphatic statement, we’ve had to reconvene the DCPS Reopening Committee, to meet extensively with Dorchester County Health Department Officers Roger Harrell and his staff.”
“We agree, our children should be back in school,” Mr. Bromwell said. “Each of us strongly support the strong recommendation of mask wearing for students and staff. We also agree that we will be trying a different approach to attendance within our 13 schools.”
He reiterated a previously published statement from DCPS that in individual schools, there might be a need to for staff and students to wear masks to curb transmission of COVID-19, “if there appears to be transmission within the building.”
“Without an executive order or a Maryland Department of Health mandate for masking all, we will proceed with this concept to begin the year,” he said. “Parents, students and staff, please be prepared, if we start to see significant transmission of COVID-19 among students, a mask mandate will be implemented without hesitation.”
He said parents and staff should be aware that the best-made plans might need to be adjusted, “to fit the situation that confronts us with COVID-19.”
“While everyone has their opinion about what is right, when dealing with this pandemic, DCPS will continue to place students’ and staff’s health as a priority as normally as possible for our students,”
Mr. Bromwell said, as his voice appeared to break with emotion. “That is my commitment.”