WESTOVER — The Somerset County Board of Education, in a special closed session on Thursday voted to continue the mask-optional position it has maintained since July and adopt a “Masking Policy” that will be posted on the SCPS website by Sept. 7.
While only the start of the meeting is available for public view online, according to school system spokeswoman Victoria Miele, when members reconvened into open session, Chair Penny Nicholson informed the audience of the unanimous approval of Policy 200-27 “which makes masks optional for all students and staff effective immediately.”
The Maryland State Board of Education on Aug. 26 voted 13-1 to require masks on everyone over the age of 2 when inside a school building, a decision that is expected to be rubberstamped for implementation by the General Assembly’s Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative (AELR) Committee when it meets on Sept. 14.
Unlike Worcester County, which was planning to start school mask-optional and then reversed course after the state board’s vote, Somerset is holding the line until a higher authority says otherwise — something Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Gaddis said will be enforceable here.
In a call to parents on Aug. 27 Dr. Gaddis said the state’s decision can supersede local authority, and he is concerned that non-compliance could result in a loss of funding which he is not willing to let happen.
Outside the central office before and during the board meeting were some 25 parents, students, and at least one staff and one former board member picketing in favor of not requiring masks on students.
Holding signs that said “No Masks” and “My Child My Choice” it was also a pushback to state overreach into the actions of an elected school board.
Lindsay Tyler said, “It should be the parents’ choice what to do,” and whether a mask is worn or not. “What’s the point of an elected school board if they can’t decide for their county?”
As for withholding state funds that was perceived as an idle threat as there is currently no mechanism to do that.
Others questioned the effectiveness of the mask on students. As one Intermediate School staff member said, while more students than not seem to be wearing a mask, it’s often not worn properly.
Former board member and retired teacher Patti Monk said allowing the state to make decisions like this will be a slippery slope to further mandates. “We’re very different than what’s going on in Anne Arundel County or Baltimore City,” she said.
It was Mrs. Monk who was appointed in 2018 to complete the unexpired term of Warner Sumpter as he was tapped to serve on the state board, voting with the majority for the mask mandate.
The next regular board meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 21. Last year the school board amended its Public Participation Policy 100-12 by deleting the right of the residents to address the board and requiring it to be only in writing and implemented a new email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
As an alternative there is the Request to Appear Policy 100-10 but requests must be submitted eight days in advance along with the reason and topic to be discussed. The deadline to apply would be Sept. 13 — one day before the AELR Committee meeting.
The policy on masks required on school buses remains unchanged as they fall under federal regulations.