The Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland has voted unanimously to make masks optional in public schools.
MCPS had told parents to expect the school board to make masks optional, including on school buses.
With the vote, the mandate is lifted immediately. Students may continue to choose to wear masks in schools.
“As a district, we expect our MCPS community to respect individual decisions about whether to mask or unmask at this time,” school district officials said.
We're making it easier for you to find stories that matter with our new newsletter — The 4Front. Sign up here and get news that is important for you to your inbox.
The school district said other COVID-19 mitigation strategies will remain in place, including a testing program, vaccination clinics and enhanced cleaning practices.
But two years into the pandemic, the dividing lines in the debate over mask mandates were as clear as ever. The board heard strong opinions on both sides during Tuesday's meeting, before taking the vote to lift the school district's mask mandate.
Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia local news, events and information
"If the Board of Education fails to make face masks optional today they will prove to be architects and enforcers of systemic child abuse," said Daniela D’Orazio.
"Our immunocompromised children and staff and other vulnerable populations need you to do your part in protecting them," said Nirali Shah.
The meeting provided the usual fireworks surrounding a vote to drop the mandate and make masking optional. Board members got an earful from parents and students.
"Are you truly, all of you, doing what's best for our children?" asked parent Rocco Perciavalle, to which someone in the crowd responded, "No."
Yaela Teplinsky, a student who supports a mask mandate, told the board: "I don’t like wearing a mask any more than the next person, but I know that sometimes it's necessary, and more than that, it provides an atmosphere of safety that's real."
Second grader Charly Lyons told the board, "My parents say you are the ones who make the rules. Can you change the rules, please? Masks are so hot and uncomfortable."
By the end of public comments, one board member had had enough.
"I was incredibly disappointed at any of you who booed those students," said board member Lynne Harris. "Those students have an equal right to speak, and they're the ones who live in our buildings every day."
About 60% of 5- to 11-year-olds in Montgomery County are fully vaccinated. Those opposed to dropping the mandate pointed to recent data showing the Pfizer vaccine is much less effective in preventing infections in that age range, as opposed to teens and adults.
In video testimony, the president of the teachers' union, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), said they're not opposed to a mask-optional approach, but called for protections for the most vulnerable and for clear metrics to reimpose the mandate if necessary.
"We have pressing questions should there be an unexpected new variant or a surge in COVID cases," said Jennifer Martin, MCEA president.
For parents such as Peter Witzler, whose son, Jackson, has special needs, lifting the mandate leaves his family with an impossible choice: "risking Jackson's educational process or knowingly sending him to an unsafe learning environment," Witzler said.
In some cases, this debate turned ugly, as evidenced by the absence of the board’s student representative, Hana O'Looney, after she was subjected to online abuse.
Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight grew emotional as she called for cooler heads to prevail and to set a good example for kids.
"I just ask that as we continue to have conversation about items that may be controversial that we put our children first," McKnight said.
The Maryland State Board of Education removed its statewide mask mandate and let local school districts determine their own masking policies starting March 1.
In neighboring D.C., the health department said that given current COVID-19 community levels, most people no longer need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors at schools or other educational facilities.
But Chancellor Lewis Ferebee released a statement saying implementation will not happen right away.
“For the immediate future, masks are still required indoors at all DC Public Schools for students, staff, and visitors," he said.
CORRECTION (5:29 p.m., March 8, 2022): A previous version of this article misspelled student school board representative Hana O'Looney's name.