OCEAN PINES – Universal masking will keep Worcester County students in the classroom, Superintendent Lou Taylor reiterated last week.
Taylor, a guest speaker at Worcester County Commissioner Chip Bertino’s town meeting Thursday, spoke primarily about the need to keep kids in class and the ramifications of not following the state’s mask mandate for schools. Regardless of individual opinions regarding masks, Taylor said the mandate was keeping more kids out of quarantine.
“It’s working for us,” he said. “We’ve estimated that if we were not in the mask protocol that we would have over four times at home without instruction today.”
In August, Taylor advised parents masks would be optional, as they were during summer school, for students attending Worcester County’s public schools in the fall. When the state board passed an emergency regulation requiring masking, however, he reversed course and implemented a mask requirement in Worcester County Public Schools.
He told a standing-room-only crowd at Bertino’s meeting that learning gaps were a real concern in the wake of the pandemic and that his focus had to be on keeping kids in school. He said Worcester pioneered several of the mitigation strategies in use throughout the state and had students in classrooms more than any other county last year.
“Worcester County has led the way in getting kids back to school,” he said.
Taylor explained that the CDC guidelines for schools — that physical distancing of three feet can be adopted in classrooms where mask use is universal — meant that if students were masked, very few needed to quarantine after a classmate tested positive for COVID-19. That provides fewer childcare difficulties for parents and keeps many kids from missing class.
“We don’t want to send students home for long periods of time with limited instruction,” he said.
He added that there had been no exposures in Worcester County’s public schools.
“As cases of COVID-19 arise in our schools, we have been able to confidently state that there have been zero student exposures within the school,” said Taylor. “Everything is out of school and brought in. Those students that have been excluded have done so because of exposure outside of our school environment.”
Bishopville resident Richard Addis said positivity rates weren’t any better in public schools than they were in some private schools that didn’t have mask mandates.
“I don’t disagree with you or argue that point,” Taylor said. “You may have a good point there. I don’t know that. This is not a personal thing with me. I care about this community. I care about our educational system and the thing that I want to make sure is that our kids get a quality education and give them the best opportunity to learn in the classroom.”
Audience member Darren Lombardo asked why the school system had given up its authority to the state.
“They have jurisdiction to remove things,” Taylor said. “One thing is funding … All 24 jurisdictions have done this throughout our state. There’s nobody that has taken on the role of saying we’re not following what you say.”
He said the school system received roughly $20 million from the state.
“They can take 20% of our funding on the spot,” he said. “They can also get an additional up to 30% of our funding, which is another $6 million.”
He said that if that funding was eliminated, he’d have to go to the county for more financial support.
Bertino said that most people in attendance at Thursday’s meeting probably found the mask mandate ridiculous but that officials had to consider more than that.
“Please understand we also have a responsibility with the oaths that we took, with the responsibility we have not only for your point of view but the point of view of people who disagree with you and may disagree with us to ensure that our schools remain open and as the superintendent said, that those kids stay in those classrooms.”