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Talbot County parents protest mask mandates in schools, vent about lack of communication

EASTON — Upset parents and children took to the streets to protest mask mandates and press for freedom of choice Tuesday after Talbot County Public Schools announced face covering requirements for the upcoming school year.

Armed with hand-drawn signs, parents gathered for a protest in front of the Talbot County Courthouse in Easton Tuesday evening to voice their frustration with their lack of input in the recent decision to reinstate mandatory masks in schools — a decision made by TCPS superintendent Dr. Kelly Griffith just a week after optional masking was announced.

“Parents need to have a say,” said Libby Beam, one of the protest’s organizers. “We never got the choice to speak, we were never asked our thoughts on it.”

Beam found the school district’s decision to mandate mask wearing to be inappropriate. She chose to stand up and protest for her son, who she had to pull out of Easton Middle School last year due to newly developed anxiety issues.

“He just suffers from anxiety, (he’s) afraid he’s going to do something wrong, afraid he’s going to get in trouble if he pulls his mask down,” Beam said. “Six hours in school is a long day. 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon being in a mask, that’s a long day.”

She stressed the protest was about parental choice when it comes masks and their kids.

“We are not here to protest that we don’t want our children in masks, and we don’t want people to think that we’re against masks,” Beam said. “We are all for whatever each parent decides.”

Other parents voiced similar concerns about their children’s mental health and well-being. For Brittany Price, the combination of masking’s negative social and health effects was her primary reason to come out and stand up for her now five-year old daughter, armed with a sign stating ‘my child, my choice.’

“As soon as last year started, I noticed that she was becoming shy like when the teacher was calling her, like even through the virtual (class),” Price said of her normally social daughter.

Price mentioned that her daughter was confused by the difference in life outside of school versus inside — something that four-year-olds can’t be expected to understand, she said.

“We know that masks are not going to protect the people who are very sick and ill in the hospitals,” Price said. “The children wearing the mask in school, explain the logic there, how is that going to save somebody’s life? That’s already past the point of being able to save them.”

When asked if she would support her daughter if she decided to wear a mask, Price responded with a resounding “absolutely,” saying that she came out to represent her daughter’s decision either way. She also mentioned that her daughter had already decided she didn’t want to and didn’t like wearing the mask.

“You only know your child, you know, the school can sit there and say you got to wear masks, but they don’t know what these kids need,” she said. “They need to ask these kids how they feel and what they’ve been through and what it’s like.”

For Leslie Murphy, a registered nurse and board certified integrative health practitioner from Trappe, the mask protest was her way of venting about the lack of communication between the school board and parents about rules and community input regarding the upcoming school year.

“We question also if the kids can sit at their desk and eat lunch without a mask, why can’t they sit at their desk and learn without a mask on?” Murphy said. “So, at minimum, we would like to see the kids not have to wear masks at their desks. I mean ultimately we’d like it to be a choice, but the rules that they’re making up, the school board, just don’t really make sense.”

Murphy added that parents just want the opportunity to present their opinions to the board of education before kids go back to school next week. She explained that despite reaching out to the Talbot County Public Schools superintendent and board members, no one has responded, inducing frustration all around.

Griffith announced the school mask mandate in an Aug. 17 notification to parents and guardians of TCPS students saying the mask rules and other COVID policies for the upcoming school year were developed based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and recommendations from the county health department.

The rise in Delta variant cases and hospitalizations across the country has prompted a number of school districts across the Eastern Shore and the country to reimpose mask mandates on students, teachers and staff. There have been protests and contentious school board meetings across Maryland and in COVID hotspots such as Florida over mask rules.

Gov. Larry Hogan has left it up to local school boards to whether they want to impose mask mandates for the upcoming school yaer.

A Talbot County Board of Education meeting was held on August 11 and was open to public comment. The next meeting isn’t scheduled until September 15 — a few weeks after school starts.

Some parents from the mask protest also took their concerns to public comment at the Talbot County Council meeting Tuesday evening to bring their thoughts and opinions to a public forum — something they claimed the board of education didn’t offer them prior to the start of schools.

Members of the council provided a place for worried parents and citizens to share their concerns, learning all that they could from the public. However, the council emphasized that they have no say in the decision on mandating masks in public schools; the decision is made by the county board of education and superintendent.

Although parents in the county may not have had the opportunity to present their thoughts to the school board prior to the start of the school year, elected officials in the county and state are still actively discussing mask mandates in schools.

The Maryland State Board of Education will hold a special meeting on Thursday, August 26 at 3 p.m. at the Maryland State Department of Education in Baltimore. A joint meeting between the Talbot County Council and the Talbot County Board of Education is scheduled for Tuesday, August 31 at 4:30 p.m. at the Talbot County Free Library in Easton.

Natalie Jones is a reporter at The Star Democrat in Easton covering crime, health, education and Talbot County Council. You can reach her with questions, comments or tips at njones@chespub.com.

Talbot County Council to hold public hearing on Lakeside water, sewer repeal on Oct. 12

EASTON — The Talbot County Council will hold a public hearing on Oct. 12 concerning a resolution that would rescind water and sewer approvals for half of Lakeside at Trappe, legislation that four council members protested during an impassioned debate and comment period.

County Council Vice President Pete Lesher introduced the resolution at an Aug. 25 meeting, despite intense prodding by his four fellow council members, each of whom urged Lesher to reconsider introducing the legislation.

“I have concerns with adding the biggest neighborhood Talbot County has ever had. But this is not the direction to go,” said Councilman Frank Divilio. “I haven’t received any recommendations on why to do this. I am all for hearing public comment, but there is a way to do that. This is not that. I will not be supporting this tonight.”

If passed, the resolution will strip away the county’s official water and sewer legislative approval for the 2,501 housing development in Trappe.

But the county attorney, Patrick Thomas, said even if the resolution passed, the council would still need to amend the comprehensive water and sewer plan to formally eliminate the governing body’s approval for the site — because 281 acts as preliminary legislation ahead of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s (MDE) final nod.

“At this point, there is nothing for the council to rescind. You gave your preliminary approval, and it went on to MDE and they gave final approval,” said Thomas. “The only way to theoretically undo 281 would now be to do another comprehensive water and sewer plan amendment.”

MDE approved the development plan with a discharge permit in December 2020, and is poised to do so again after a local judge ordered the state agency to hold another public hearing for the permit on Oct. 28.

Lesher said questions had been raised by the development, including the connection of the development’s first 120 homes to the town of Trappe’s existing wastewater treatment plant, which is operating with outdated technology and currently discharges effluent into LaTrappe Creek, an impaired waterway.

“We’ve heard from a growing number of constituents who are concerned that their issues with this was not heard,” he said, citing concerns with the existing wastewater plant. “Trappe does eventually plan to upgrade that plant to modern (enhanced nutrient removal) discharge standards, but that upgrade is still years away. My goal in this process is to give the issue a fresh public hearing for the benefit of both the proponents and the skeptics.”

Lesher’s resolution comes after a petition, signed by Dan Watson and about 227 other Talbot County residents, urged the council to introduce legislation rescinding water and sewer approval for the development because aspects of Lakeside’s design plans had changed since 281 passed in August 2020.

On similar grounds, ShoreRivers successfully won a lawsuit in the Talbot County Circuit Court in April, which forced the MDE to hold its public hearing in October for a new discharge permit. The environmental organization argued that nearly every aspect of the permit had changed between the draft permit and final permit, and the public could not comment on it.

Concerns linger from residents and environmentalists over a wastewater plant that will spray an estimated 540,000 gallons of treated sewage on crop fields near some residential homes and critical waterways like Miles Creek.

But when introducing the legislation, Lesher focused on his issue with Trappe’s current treatment plant, which Watson and petitioners contend is violating its permit because of outdated technology.

Councilwoman Laura Price, however, countered Lesher on the connection with the first 120 homes of Lakeside at Trappe to the town’s existing plant.

“It’s going to take years to build 120 homes. What I have been told is those homes will not stay on the Trappe plant,” she said. “Whatever homes there are — whether that is 10, 20, 100 — will be moved over. So again, I have very important questions I want answered about the process. But I am not as concerned with the process that all of a sudden tomorrow, there is 120 homes on a (biological nutrient removal) plant.”

The council will hold a vote on the resolution after the public hearing in October, which would likely fail given four council members are still deeply set against the rescission, and are unlikely to change views unless new information surfaces.

Councilman Corey Pack told Lesher that “this just doesn’t do it” and that “there were things in 281 that were good,” such as splitting the development’s water and sewer approval into S1 and S2 status.

“This is a bridge to nowhere. I will also agree with Mr. Divilio — it is a waste of time. It doesn’t accomplish anything,” said Pack. “It’s really putting the council into a bad position to put something on the agenda for a public hearing, which you very well know is not going to accomplish anything.”

After Lesher introduced the resolution, Price asked her colleague to change the hearing date from Sept. 14 to Oct. 12, which the council agreed to after some political wrangling on the efficacy of information gathering.

Price wanted to wait for more information from MDE, while Lesher wanted to hold another hearing as soon as possible to gather details from the public. But Price said Lesher’s resolution was not the right “vehicle for it,” and she had confidence that her questions about the development were going to be answered by MDE.

“I trust MDE, that they will get that information for me,” she said. “Once we get all that information, then we can make a decision — an informed decision — on whether to amend the comprehensive water and sewer plan.”

The council expressed concerns with the growing opposition to Lakeside at Trappe, citing emails and phone calls to the planning commission that have inundated the county in recent weeks.

County Council President Chuck Callahan said much of the fighting over the development has led to to a “negative” view of Lakeside at Trappe — and a lack of public support of the small town for Trappe.

“I think we need to help Trappe and look at Trappe’s future,” he said. “We want to do things right. The council here did things right, we went through a long process to get to this point. Obviously they have started that project and I think Trappe wants to do things right ... people think Trappe pulled some wool over our eyes, and I don’t think that.”

Callahan said the council is looking forward to “giving opportunities to people to live” in Trappe, and that MDE’s upcoming public hearing would answer some critical questions.

Some council member’s comments seemed to suggest that while they had a lot of questions about the development, their hands were tied on Lakeside at Trappe.

Divilio said the public record the county would keep and maintain on Lesher’s resolution would be “for naught.” Price asked residents to voice their opinion at the Oct. 28 public hearing to be held by MDE, rather than taking their concerns to the county, because the state is the final authority.

“All the people that want to speak to us — we have no more power,” she said. “We can’t do anything, but MDE can.”

3 things

1 Famous birthdays: Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is 76. R&B singer Valerie Simpson is 76. Broadcast journalist Bill Whitaker is 70. Actor Brett Cullen is 65. Former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy is 62. Jazz musician Branford Marsalis is 61. Actor Melissa McCarthy is 51. Actor Macaulay Culkin is 41. R&B singer Cassie (AKA Cassie Ventura and pictured) is 35. Actor Danielle Savre is 33. Actor Keke Palmer is 28.

2 On this day in history, in 1817, the University of Michigan was founded. In 1883, the island volcano Krakatoa began cataclysmic eruptions, leading to a massive explosion the following day. In 1939, the first televised major league baseball games were shown on experimental station W2XBS: a double-header between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. (The Reds won the first game, 5-2, the Dodgers the second, 6-1.) In 2015, Alison Parker, a reporter for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, and her cameraman, Adam Ward, were shot to death during a live broadcast by a disgruntled former station employee who fatally shot himself while being pursued by police. (More history on A4)

3 Maryland health officials announced Wednesday that they have confirmed the first human case of West Nile Virus in the state this year. An adult living in the Baltimore area tested positive for the virus, the Department of Health said. The virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes infected by feeding on birds with the virus. The virus may be spread in rare cases from person to person through organ donation, blood transfusion, breastfeeding, or from pregnant mother to fetus. Up to 80 percent of people who are infected will not display any signs of illness at all but those with underlying health conditions could become seriously ill. (More on StarDem.com)

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, wait to board a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. More coverage of the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover on page A2 and at StarDem.com.

Chaotic Afghanistan exit

Cassie Ventura arrives at the 2018 GQ’s Men of the Year Celebration on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif.