CUMBERLAND, Md. — Despite strong recommendations from health officials that face coverings help slow the spread of COVID-19, which could decrease the amount of quarantine time, Allegany County Public Schools students will not be required to mask up this fall.
But that could change.
Roughly 60% of residents age 12 and older in many counties across the state are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Allegany County Health Officer Jenelle Mayer told the Board of Education Tuesday.
“We’re near the bottom of all the jurisdictions in Maryland,” she said. “That is of course concerning to us as a local health department.”
Vaccination is the “number one way to fight the spread” of COVID-19, she said.
Data shows that 20.3% of ACPS students ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, whereas some Maryland school systems are at 60% to 70%.
Four school systems had lower vaccination rates, and 19 were higher than ACPS.
“This is a very concerning rate,” Mayer said of the percentage of fully vaccinated ACPS students and added that the vaccine is available at places including the health department, many urgent care clinics, health care providers and pharmacies.
“Vaccination is our first strategy and then we get into masking,” she said. “Masking is one of the best strategies that we have to reduce transmission between individuals.”
Face coverings can help reduce spread of the virus among kids younger than 12 years old that are not eligible for the vaccine, Mayer said.
Unvaccinated students that are in close contact with a COVID-19 case must quarantine for 14 days, Mayer said.
“This could happen multiple times throughout the school year,” she said. “We all know throughout the last school year how many hundreds of kids had to quarantine, and implementing a mask requirement would really change that.”
Allegany and Garrett County Health Departments Medical Deputy Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Corder said COVID-19 vaccines are the safer way to gain immunity against the virus, “rather than the option of acquiring disease in the community, which carries a great risk.”
She also said masking reduces COVID-19 transmission, and said additional precautionary measures including social distancing and hand washing contribute to layers of protection against the virus.
“Our overall goal is to get kids back to school and to keep them there,” Corder said.
“The main benefits of the vaccine … are that you are much less likely to be hospitalized or die,” she said.
“We want to protect all unvaccinated people,” Corder said. “That’s why we would mask. It’s about the greater good here.”
Robert Farrell, vice president of the school board, said the decision whether to be vaccinated against COVID-19 should be personal.
“I definitely don’t like the idea of anybody telling me what I can or can’t put in my body,” he said.
The Maryland State Department of Education required its school systems to submit 2021-2022 reopening plans by Aug. 13.
On Tuesday, the ACPS administration presented the BOE its draft of the plan, which follows state guidance and “strongly recommends” but does not require individuals who are not fully vaccinated to wear face coverings in indoor settings, and in outdoor settings when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
“I cannot support this plan given the fact that so many people would have to quarantine. That bothers me a lot,” school board member Debra Frank said. “There’s no way to not miss days with voluntary masking.”
After a lengthy discussion, the board took action on an amended plan that states ACPS will follow recent guidance from the state’s health and education departments regarding mask usage.
Board President Crystal Bender, member Tammy Fraley and Frank voted to approve the proposal. Farrell and board member David Bohn were against the move.
Case, vaccination rates
The Maryland Department of Health on Tuesday reported the daily COVID-19 case rate was 3.38%, with Allegany County at 3.72%, Garrett County at 2.7% and Washington County at 3.87%.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 77.7% of Marylanders age 18 and older have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccination.
Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties each had roughly half of the statewide vaccination rate.