Cecil County Schools to Require Masks for Students, Staff to Keep Schools Open Despite High COVID Rates, Low Vaccinations; 2 Politicians Fuel Anti-Mask Furor

August 25, 2021

Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) will require students and staff to wear protective masks indoors, and on school buses, when classes resume on 9/1/2021, Schools Superintendent Jeff Lawson announced Wednesday (8/25/2021) in a video posted online. The masking rules are in response to high rates of COVID-19 infections in the county and rising counts of childhood infections.

Lawson said the decision was designed to keep the schools open and prevent potential mandatory quarantines that could result in school closings if there were rising positivity rates for COVID-19. “It’s about keeping schools open,” he said.

“This has been a constant challenge,” Lawson said of the past year in coping with the ups and downs of the pandemic and requirements to quarantine students after positive tests. CCPS was one of the more “open” school systems in the state during the last academic year, mixing online learning options with gradually increasing in-person classroom teaching with social distancing, masks, and shield options. But infection outbreaks required some shutdowns of in person learning programs.

Lawson said the new mask rules would, under state and federal guidelines, permit smaller group quarantines if a student tested positive for COVID and make it less likely that an entire school might have to shut down under a quarantine. CCPS has also instituted a new online learning program, with 15 dedicated teachers and about 350 enrolled students, for the fall semester.

The mask decision was reached after Lawson and members of the elected Board of Education (BOE) conducted non-stop consultations in recent days but there was not a formal in person meeting or vote of the BOE, according to a CCPS spokeswoman.

CCPS had been expected to announce a decision last week on whether to require masks in the schools when they reopen on 9/1/2021. But Dr. Lawson said Wednesday that he and the BOE members decided to delay as long as possible in the vain hope that the infection rates for the county might improve. Instead, the county has remained a “high” transmission area for COVID, with a positivity caseload of 22.5 cases per 100,000 residents as of this week, Lawson said.

The Cecil County decision came a day before an anticipated special meeting vote on Thursday (8/26/2021) by the state Board of Education on whether to impose an “emergency” rule to require masks in all public schools statewide. The state panel was widely expected to invoke its emergency powers to impose mask requirements as a way to bring into line the few remaining counties in the state that have not already imposed mask rules on their own.

And late Wednesday, a bipartisan coalition of 32 Maryland Senators sent a letter to the President and Vice President of the State Board of Education urging emergency masking rules in Maryland schools.

“Continuous in-person instruction this school year is critical, and we must protect students’ ability to learn with other children in school buildings statewide throughout the year,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore).

Only Dorchester, Garrett, Somerset, Worcester and Carroll counties have not instituted masking requirements, according to a map database created by the state Department of Legislative Services. Carroll County has had a fluctuating infection rate, at times having a low infection rate but rising to “high” at times, while the other counties on that list have all been classified as having consistently “high” infection rates as well as low rates of fully vaccinated residents.

Cecil County has consistently had a “high” COVID infection rate and for a long time had the second lowest vaccination rate in the state. Local vaccination numbers have been rising but still lag far behind other counties and statewide averages.

As of the Wednesday 8/25/2021 state COVID data portal, Cecil County had a total of 6,966 cases and 159 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The current rate of fully vaccinated Cecil residents was 43.1 percent of the population. That is well below statewide stats and individual counties such as Howard and Montgomery, which have consistently led the state in the proportion of residents who are fully vaccinated.

Despite Cecil County’s consistently low vaccination rate and proportionately high infection rates, some local politicians have sought to make the virus and masks a political issue–in particular, County Executive Danielle Hornberger and her close political ally, County Council member Jackie Gregory (R-5).

Hornberger and Gregory signed a letter dated 8/16/2021 to the Board of Education in which they strongly opposed requiring children to wear masks in local schools. Gregory tried to get the rest of the County Council to sign on to the letter, but they refused at a Council worksession last week.

The duo wrote: “Now that the vaccine is widely available to any eligible resident, there is no justification for requiring our school children to wear masks, especially since children are among the least likely to experience serve [SIC] health complications due to COVID. Furthermore, the efficacy of cloth and surgical masks are unproven.”

That assertion—that children were unlikely to be affected by COVID—is contradicted by the nationwide numbers of rising infections, hospitalizations and deaths among children caused by the Delta variant of the virus, which is now the dominant strain of the virus in the US. Furthermore, no vaccines are yet approved for children under the age of 12.

Cecil County Health Officer Lauren Levy documented the rising numbers of children testing positive for COVID in the county during an appearance before the County Council at an 8/17/2021 worksession, saying there had been 24 cases of youngsters under the age of 19 in the county as of that date. She said she did not have numbers on pediatric hospitalizations because any local children requiring hospitalization would be sent to the DuPont/Nemours pediatric hospital in Delaware, which does not come under Maryland reporting requirements.

Levy urged adoption of a masking requirement in Cecil County schools based on high COVID infection rates and low vaccination rates. Also attending the worksession were Dr. Lawson and members of the Board of Education.

Gregory tried to get fellow Council members to join her in Hornberger’s anti-mask letter to the BOE but they declined. Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) and Councilor Bill Coutz (R-2) said it was up to the elected school board and CCPS to make that decision, not the Council. And Meffley inquired, “Who in the administration has a master’s degree in public health,” as he pointed toward the county health officials in the room who did.

Meanwhile, Gregory has been very active on social media, pressuring fellow political conservatives to bombard CCPS officials and members of the BOE with emails condemning mask requirements in the schools. She also initiated an email campaign targeting fellow Council members even after she lost their support for an anti-mask statement at the worksession.

Gregory has also been supportive of several new social media groups targeting opposition to masking in the schools and COVID vaccinations, as well as their leaders’ multiple postings on the Cecil County Republican Women’s page. Gregory is the newly elected vice chair of that organization.

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