Most Mid-Shore public school students will be required to wear masks inside when classes begin for the coming school year.
Four of the region’s five school systems have largely adopted guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that recommends universal indoor masking, regardless of vaccination status, for anyone age 2 and older who enters a school.
Dorchester County Public Schools has not issued a mask requirement for students, but is encouraging unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks inside school buildings.
A federal mandate requires masks on all bus transportation nationwide, so all students will be required to wear masks while riding a school bus.
CDC guidance for schools includes:
- Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.
- Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.
- Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
- In addition to universal indoor masking, CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as screening testing.
- Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.
- Students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care.
- Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect students, teachers, staff, visitors, and other members of their households and support in-person learning.
- Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies (e.g., physical distancing, screening testing).
The CDC’s Covid Data Tracker shows that community transmission levels currently are high in all 5 Mid-Shore counties, for Maryland as a whole, and across the United States.
The county’s level of community transmission has been high since Aug. 6.
In an Aug. 17 statement, Superintendent Kelly Griffith said school districts had “received updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Maryland Department of Health (MDH), and the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE)” and recommendations from the Talbot County health officer in developing its layered prevention strategies.
Those strategies, effective immediately, are:
- Requiring universal indoor masking for individuals age 2 years and older, including students/children, teachers, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.
- Promoting vaccination among teachers, staff and students.
- Maintaining physical distancing of three feet to the extent possible without excluding students from in-person learning.
- Offering rapid COVID-19 testing in schools if needed.
- Maintaining adequate ventilation of all buildings to support air quality
- Following health department guidance regarding contact tracing, isolation and quarantine for staff or students who are sick, have COVID-19 symptoms, are exposed to someone with COVID-19 or test positive for COVID-19 according to the Talbot County Health Department Quarantine Policy .
“While this is not the way we hoped to be starting the school year, we will continue to monitor the situation on a weekly basis and will make revisions accordingly,” Griffith wrote. “The good news is that we have 88% of our staff and almost 50% of our 12 -17 year-olds vaccinated so we remain encouraged and hopeful about a healthy and productive school year.”
Kent County Public Schools will require face coverings for all students, staff, and visitors inside school buildings and the central office.
“The masking requirement for vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff will preserve our ability to continue in-person instruction and help to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” Superintendent Karen M. Couch wrote in a statement.
Other key mitigation strategies include:
- Promote frequent hand washing and hygiene.
- Enhanced cleaning protocols.
- Social distancing of 3 ft. whenever possible.
- Self-screening for COVID-19.
- Contact tracing and quarantining.
Couch said the school system “encourages all eligible persons to get fully vaccinated to protect yourself and those around you.”
Dorchester County Public Schools recommends unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks inside school facilities.
In an Aug. 3 statement, Superintendent W. David Bromwell and Dorchester County Health Officer Roger Harrell said:
“Masking continues to be the most talked about subject as we enter the 2021-2022 school year. Dorchester County has become a High-Rate transmission county in Maryland, almost overnight.
“DCPS will do everything possible to keep our students and staff safe while attending school. It is possible that an individual DCPS school will be required to ‘Mask Up’ if infection rates and COVID transmissions are increasing within a building.”
The school system and the health department had reviewed the latest guidance from the CDC and the federal education department, and the county’s COVID-19 statistics, according to the statement. As a result, Dorchester schools will encourage the following:
- Follow Federal mandate of masking on all bus transportation throughout the county
- Unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks in all facilities
- Those who are eligible to receive a vaccination
- Ask staff and families to pre-screen for symptoms of illness daily
- Hand washing throughout the day, especially before and after meals
- Individual materials of instruction (no sharing of supplies)
- When possible, always use social distancing of a minimum of 3 feet within DCPS buildings
- Implement a high level of cleaning, especially high touch areas in schools and busses
County schools also will continue to provide the following:
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including hand sanitizer to students and staff
- Ongoing professional development to staff, families, and students involving COVID 19 and its variants
- MERV rated filters throughout DCPS HVAC systems
- COVID screening for students and staff whenever possible
- Multiple vaccination opportunities for staff and eligible students leading up to the 2021-2022 school year
“Masks are now required for all individuals inside Caroline County Public Schools buildings, regardless of vaccination status, when students are present,” Caroline County Public Schools said in an Aug. 17 post on its website.
“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,” Interim Superintendent Derek Simmons told the school board in an Aug. 17 special meeting.
“Given the current circumstances, we have a much better chance of meeting that goal if everyone is wearing a mask while indoors.”
According to the post, the decision was based on several important 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.
- The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Caroline County Health Department all recommend a mask requirement for student and staff safety, and as a way to enable schools to remain open.
- The Draft Reopening Plan Survey comments indicated that while some respondents wanted masks to remain a choice, a majority felt strongly that masks should be required.
Board President Jim Newcomb urged older students, “If you are comfortable with being vaccinated, be a leader in your school and get the vaccine. This is the only way under these conditions to get your life and your friends’ lives as close to normal as possible.”
Queen Anne’s County:
“Approved face coverings must be worn in all QACPS buildings,” the school system said in an Aug. 23 post on its website.
In a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), the school system said not requiring masks would result in a larger number of students being quarantined and absent from school if an unmasked student tests positive for COVID-19.
“If a student were to choose not to wear a face covering and tests positive for COVID-19, the unvaccinated students around that child (masked or unmasked) are then required to be quarantined.
“However, if all students have face coverings and at least socially distant in the classroom, only the child testing positive would miss school days.
“There may be other settings such as the bus or the cafeteria where social distancing cannot be maintained.
“Our best chance at keeping classrooms and schools safe and open is to require everyone to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing whenever possible.”
Diagrams from Caroline and Queen Anne’s county schools highlight the effectiveness of masks in limiting the number of students who must quarantine if a student tests positive for COVID-19.
With 3-foot spacing and all students wearing masks, only the student testing positive for COVID-19 would have to quarantine in three classroom seating diagrams, according to Caroline schools.
Without masks, 6 to 8 other students sitting near the student who tested positive also would have to quarantine and miss school. Those students would be considered close contacts at high risk of getting COVID-19.
A diagram from Queen Anne’s schools notes the differences between old and current quarantine guidelines.
The previous guidelines would have required mass student quarantine if one student tested positive.
Under the current guidelines, with everyone masked and remaining three feet apart, the student who tested positive would have to quarantine. Those within close proximity would only have to quarantine if they had symptoms.