By Uma Ribeiro, Kevin Barry, Lydia Jensen, and Leaana Khan
Editor-in-Chief, News & Managing Editor, Editorials Editor, and A&E Editor
Pictured above: One of the new posters on display throughout Hammond following the lift of the mask mandate last Tuesday.
On February 24th, the HCPSS Board of Education voted to make mask-wearing optional. The option to no longer wear a face mask was made effective on Tuesday, March 1st, with the majority of board members including Christina Delmont-Small, Yun Lu, Peter J Banyas (the Student Member of the Board), Antonia Watts, Chao Wu, and Vicky Cutroneo voting to pass the motion and board members Jennifer Mallo and Jolene Mosley voting against the option to remove face coverings within schools.
Students can now choose to wear or not wear masks in schools and on their school buses while masks remain required in the health room. The indoor mask mandate was lifted throughout Howard County on February 1st, though “Howard County Government buildings and facilities, and public transit, including the RTA, will still require masks. Businesses and organizations may still require masking at their own discretion.” The mask mandate for government buildings was then lifted a few weeks later.
Such decisions, including the decision to lift the mask mandate in schools, were based on Covid rates and vaccination rates within the county.
On February 1st, County Executive Calvin Ball released a statement with his reasoning for the lifted mask mandate in general Howard County spaces: “At the height of the post-holiday surge, our positivity rate was nearly 30%, our case rate per 100,000 was 199, and 84 people were hospitalized at Howard County General Hospital. During the past month, we’ve seen our metrics decrease significantly, and more of our residents got their vaccines and booster shots.”
He gave the numbers of these metrics from early February, stating, “Today, our positivity rate is at 8.47%, a 70% decrease from its peak, our case rate per 100,000 is 34, an 83% decrease from its peak, and our hospitalizations have decreased by 60%.”
In an Instagram post, Student Member of the Board Peter Banyas announced that the choice to lift the mask mandate in schools was based on similar statistics, including the consideration of hospitalization numbers rather than daily cases. The shifting CDC guidelines and the CDC’s categorization of Howard County as a “low Covid community” was a contributing factor in the final decision as well.
Pictured above: Graphic from Peter Banya’s Instagram posted on February 28th
Superintendent Dr. Micheal J. Martirano stated that “While masks will no longer be required in schools, every student and staff member should feel encouraged and supported to make the decision they feel most comfortable with.”
The Hammond population is split both ways, with some feeling concern regarding the mask mandate being lifted and others who agree with the decision and are eager to take their masks off.
Many Hammond students still choose to wear their masks, and for good reason.
Senior Kelly Kujawa commented, “The county lifted the mask mandate as soon as they could, but in doing so they did it brashly and without preparation. As we saw with the Covid spike earlier this school year, the county is unwilling to do much in regards to taking serious safety measures, so having everyone take their masks off only a few months after the Covid spikes seems incredibly risky, hence the reason I’ve continued masking.”
“When they lifted the mask mandate I was surprised, it seemed sudden given that less than a few months ago numerous schools were basically ghost towns due to staff and students quarantining. I would have preferred they waited a bit longer to ensure that Covid spikes were a thing of the past, if only just for everyone’s peace of mind,” she added.
Junior Carter Rakestraw commented, “I was scared that I was going to catch Covid and [was] kind of embarrassed for the people that took their masks off. I’m wearing two masks [now] because I do not want to catch Covid.”
Others felt the same. “I felt confused at the decision [to lift the mask mandate] because it makes no sense to lift it when there’s still Covid and people are still getting infected. I’ve felt uncomfortable since. They think I’m not safe at school since other people aren’t wearing a mask. I will continue wearing it so I can keep myself and others safe,” commented sophomore Falak Jamal.
Fellow sophomore Nick Cosgrove added on, “I felt surprised because it seemed a little premature. I’m surprised that there are more people still wearing the mask. I agree with the decision because there’s not a reason to keep people from choosing. My parents think it’s kind of early and want us to keep wearing masks. I will continue wearing my mask because I want to see what the numbers will look like.”
Others feel like it is time for masks to come off.
“I was happy because since I’m vaccinated I’m protected enough to not wear a mask. I agree with the decision because personally I believe that the covid cases are going down. I will not continue to wear a mask,” commented sophomore Justin Strickland.
Some students are happy with having the option to either wear or not wear the mask, choosing to wear one at some points in the day or in certain parts of the building where they may feel at higher risk.
Sophomore Chase Endres said, “I felt happy because I liked having the option. I agree with the decision, because it gives people the option to do what they want. My family agrees with me. It depends on where I am in school as to if I’m going to wear it.”
Some teachers have suggested that students remain masked while in their classroom. Others feel like the mask-optional decision is one for the best and can lead to better learning.
“Eventually we need to get back to the way things used to be, and I think people just need to go at it at their own pace,” commented Assistant Principal Mr. Seibel.
Mr. Seibel feels this is a step in the right direction to getting back to normal, saying, “[Seniors] need prom. Face it, the last two years, seniors did not get prom, [there were] no end of the year school activities, two years ago we had to have a drive-through graduation. That’s not life. We need to get back to it.”
Media Specialist Ms. Dunn said she was nervous at first, “…because it’s been quite a while we’ve been in Covid. I’m worried about a relapse, but now I’m hopeful that everything will be fine. I’m seeing most kids wearing masks, and I’m seeing some kids without masks. I’m seeing the number of cases and hospitalizations going down. I’m hoping that this is truly close to the end and we’ll still be safe.”
She also commented on how the life of the mask mandate may impact learning, saying, “For students who are concerned, it can create some anxiety. It can always cause a negative impact on school.”
“There’s a positive in that people are respecting each other, but the negative is that if you’re concerned about masks it can cause some problems with comfort and performance,” she added.
The majority of Hammond students and staff continue to wear their masks while some have chosen to remain maskless.
Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide if they are comfortable with removing their mask or not and to consider the potential risks involved in doing so, and overall the Hammond community has adjusted well to the lift of the mask mandate.
Mr Seibel commented that he was “…concerned about how…people are going to adjust,” wondering if “those who don’t wear masks versus those who wear masks are…going to be able to coexist.”
“So far, [after] a couple days, [it] looks like it’s all working out well. It doesn’t look like there’s any mask issue [or] any mask shaming or no-mask shaming,” he said.
Ms. Dunn commented, “One thing that I’ve seen here is that everyone has been respectful to each other whether they wear masks or not. I’m hoping that maybe it leads to accepting different thoughts and opinions and getting along despite how we see things. What I’ve witnessed has been pretty positive. When you are positive towards others it leads to a more accepting environment, [and] makes people feel better.”
Howard County officials continue to encourage all Howard County community members to get vaccinated in order to be as protected from Covid-19 as possible. To find a vaccination site, click here.