Jul. 31—Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano announced Friday that, effective immediately, masks will be required in school buildings for all students, staff and visitors regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status.
The decision comes after new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics and the Howard County Health Department, all of which strongly endorse universal indoor masking amid a rise in coronavirus cases across the state and country, the school system said in a news release.
"This is not a decision I made lightly. Getting our students back to school in person is a top priority," Martirano said in a statement. "We recognize in this case that 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' I know not everyone is comfortable in a mask and appreciate our community's cooperation as we continue to fight this pandemic."
Masks also will be required on school buses. However, they will not be required for any students or staff while eating or drinking indoors. Masks will not be required while outside on school grounds but are recommended for unvaccinated individuals, the school system said.
"I'm very pleased the Howard County Public School System continues to move forward with in-person learning this upcoming school year, and I fully support a safe teaching and learning environment for our students, educators and families," Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement. "I cannot underscore enough that, especially as we face the delta variant, the best way for our residents to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated if they're eligible."
In addition to universal masking in school buildings, the school system will continue its process of ensuring readiness, reviewing protocols and ongoing monitoring of several items, including student meals, personal protective equipment supplies, additional care, air quality, screenings for illness and COVID-19 testing.
"It is critical for us to take all precautions and prepare for a fall school reopening," Board of Education Chair Chao Wu said. "We will work with all stakeholders to fight this pandemic together and support our students, staff and families together."
The school system has said repeatedly it is "committed" to the return of five-day, in-person learning for all students this fall and said it is continuing to evaluate several considerations when making these decisions, including guidance and recommendations from health professionals and experts, and feedback from parents, students and staff.
Martirano will provide further updates on health and safety measures during the Aug. 12 Board of Education meeting.
You are now following this newsletter. See all newsletters.
In the Central Maryland area, decisions on masks in schools are currently split. Baltimore County Public Schools announced earlier this week that the system will require all students, staff and visitors in schools to wear masks for the fall semester. In Baltimore City, all students and staff will be required to wear masks, and students must maintain a 3-foot distance from one another and staff a 6-foot distance from students.
Carroll County, however, has made face coverings optional for all staff and students, and Harford County's public schools are expecting to start the school year without masks. Anne Arundel County, meanwhile, said it hasn't decided yet whether to require masks in schools in the fall.
While infection, hospitalization and death rates were down drastically in Howard and across Maryland last month, now there is a more contagious COVID-19 mutation, called the delta variant, circulating widely in the United States.
As of Friday, Maryland health data shows the statewide average positivity rate has risen to 2.73% from under 1% for much of late June and early July, and the number of people hospitalized has more than doubled since July 1 to 222. The number of new cases, which had been under 100 a month ago, has jumped all week, topping 300 Tuesday, 400 Wednesday and then 500 Thursday and Friday.
In Howard, the county hit a record-low positivity rate of 0.38% on June 30, according to state data. As of Friday, the rate has risen back up to 2.38%.
Howard's vaccination rates remain the highest in the state, with 72.15% of the county's total population having received at least one shot of a vaccine and 67.9% being fully vaccinated, state data shows.