CENTREVILLE — Queen Anne’s County Public Schools will require masks for all staff and students going into the 2021-22 school year, Superintendent Patricia Saelens announced Monday afternoon, Aug. 16.

“Our primary goal is getting students back in school to prevent any additional learning loss as well as keeping the health and safety of all students and staff a priority,” Saelens wrote in the statement. The amended guidelines were announced via press release Aug. 16.

The new policy comes a little over two weeks after QACPS sent out a letter en masse stipulating the school system would “encourage” mask wearing for unvaccinated students and personnel. Now, universal face coverings, including either face shields or face masks, are required in all QACPS buildings and buses. The only time masks may be removed is when six feet of social distancing is maintained.

With the start of the academic year closing in and COVID cases rising among both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, school districts across the state and the country have been reconsidering their approaches to the pandemic with mixed conclusions. Whereas Dr. Kelly Griffith, superintendent of Talbot County Public Schools, decided last week that TCPS will not be requiring masks, California became the first state to mandate that all staff members be vaccinated.

In Queen Anne’s County, in addition to face coverings, daily self screenings and/or health checks will be required prior to entering any school building, and while QACPS will not be requiring vaccinations from its students and staff, it is encouraging all eligible people to receive one.

QACPS still maintains many of the prevention strategies listed in the school system’s previous letter, including the emphasis on cleaning high-touch surfaces, the use of the highest MERV rated filters in the schools’ HVAC systems, and the availability of personal protective equipment — including hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies as well as masks — to staff and students.

Saelens’ decision was drawn after consultation and document review with Queen Anne’s County Health Officer Dr. Joseph Ciotola, as well as the Maryland Department of Health, the Maryland State Department of Education, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are committed to ensuring a quality education in a safe environment,” Saelens said. “We will continue to consult with our local health care partners and periodically review this decision and make changes as needed. We will adapt and adjust as the situation demands.”

As of Friday, Aug. 13, 53.68% of Queen Anne’s County residents are fully vaccinated, according to data made available by the county. The Maryland Department of Health reports 60% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

But concerns over the Delta variant and breakthrough cases have expanded prevention strategies to include more than vaccinations. The Maryland Department of Health reported last week eight new deaths and 65 additional hospitalizations among fully-vaccinated patients. According to the health agency, between Jan. 26 and Aug. 8, there have been 61 deaths statewide among the fully vaccinated and 519 hospitalizations.

Despite these developments, in the time between Saelens’ two announcements, a great deal of parental activism has circulated around mask requirements. Parents on both sides of the debate have started online petitions to gather support — though the one against masks was allegedly taken down by Change.org, according to local mom and organizer Jodi Dauses — and some students even carried petitions around the Queen Anne’s County Fair that read, “I would rather get suspended than have a mask mandate.”

According to Dauses, more than 850 community members have signed anti-mask petitions.

Parents who are against face covering requirements are planning to meet outside the Board of Education building Wednesday afternoon prior to the board’s work session, where a few speakers will be given the opportunity to address Dr. Saelens, as well as different board members who have agreed to listen.

“It’s very frustrating that this information was released on Monday before the Board of Education had time to really review it and look at it and give their input,” Dauses said. “And really what that means is that the Board of Education hasn’t gotten a chance to hear from us as parents.”

“There has been an incredible amount of momentum here in Queen Anne’s County of parents and students who are asking that the Board of Ed does overturn this, because families are wanting the free choice to decide if their children wear masks to school.”

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