Washington County Public Schools do not plan to impose capacity limits or mask requirements in response to the coronavirus pandemic when the new school year begins on August 30.
The school system’s decision not to impose masks on students and staff in classrooms, hallways and cafeterias was announced as Washington County reported an 81% increase in new coronavirus cases week after week, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data held by Johns Hopkins University.
The spike led the county health department to recommend on Tuesday that all people over the age of 2 wear a mask in public places, whether or not they are vaccinated. The department also urged more people to get vaccinated. As of Monday, 53.2% of the county’s population over the age of 12 had been fully immunized.
Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention turned the tide last week, urging fully vaccinated Americans to wear masks indoors to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
“I know a lot of people are worried about our New Year which begins for students on August 30,” Superintendent Boyd Michael said at a Washington County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. “We obviously continue to plan with safety in mind with COVID still active here in our region.
“But we’re also very, very excited about helping the students get back to normal, and our plan is to speed up learning at this point.”
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Policies and procedures will likely change over the next few weeks, he said.
“I hope things improve and counties drop some of their requirements and I hope we don’t see things increase with COVID,… we will have to make changes ourselves,” said Michael. “So we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Other Maryland school systems require students and staff to wear masks at the start of the school year, regardless of immunization status, including Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George counties.
How does WCPS plan to deal with the pandemic in the new school year?
“We seek to protect the health and safety of all stakeholders, provide access to grade-level education for all students, promote the social (and) emotional well-being of students and staff,” said Jeffrey Proulx, Director of School System Operations. during a power point presentation.
Proulx said the goal is to maintain a healthy environment in all classrooms by doing the following:
- Provide physical distancing where possible
- Provision of hand sanitizer for all classes
- Maintenance of air purifiers in all classrooms
- Disinfect regularly
- Encourage frequent hand washing
- Limit shared equipment
Proulx said school officials expect to be at full capacity, with the exception of students moving on to the Academy of Blended Learning Education, also known as ABLE, which will be based at the former primary school in Funkstown. It is the county’s first fully online school for K-12 students who have done well in e-learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and want to continue.
Over 300 students are enrolled in the new program.
Regarding school buses, Proulx said school leaders want to maintain a healthy environment by performing bus inspections and improved cleaning protocols.
“Families should expect buses to be at normal full capacity,” he said. “This is a change from last year. It shouldn’t be a surprise if we see two people at one seat on most of our bus routes again.”
One thing that will not change compared to last year: the masks on the buses.
“Passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses according to the CDC, which is part of the order of federal directive, and this is no different from the masking order that is in place right now. if you are traveling by plane or if you are traveling to, say, Hagerstown on suburban county, ”Proulx said.
And while masks aren’t mandatory in school buildings, that doesn’t mean students, teachers, or staff can’t wear them.
“At this point, we leave the individual choice to masking in the classroom and in the building,” said Proulx. “So buses are mandatory, but classrooms are the family’s choice at this point, right now. “
Proulx said school officials are monitoring data on COVID-19 cases and hopefully won’t have to start demanding masks in all schools again.
Maintaining a healthy environment with COVID-19 testing and contact tracing will be available.
Health and safety practices will also be in place for extracurricular activities. This includes a ban on sharing personal property, physical distancing where possible, and available hand sanitizing stations.
Sherry Greenfield is an education reporter, covering Washington County Public Schools and the Washington County Board of Education. Follow Sherry on Twitter at Sheina2018 or Instagram at beckmangreenfield.