SILVER SPRING, Md. – When COVID-19 swept through a Rosemary Hills Elementary School kindergarten last week, the principal sent home a note telling parents the rest of the class would have to wear masks for 10 days.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who has railed against mask mandates since early in the pandemic, did not approve.
“If you want to voluntarily wear a mask, fine, but leave our kids the hell alone,” the Texas Republican posted online.
At the school – 3 miles from the National Institutes of Health and 1,100 miles from the Texas state line – parents did not appreciate Cruz’s advice.
“He’s an idiot,” said James Smith, 59, a retired Navy man who’d just dropped off his daughter for first grade. “I don’t understand what’s going on with these politicians. Our kids need to be protected. Our parents need to protect them. And when we give them over to the school system, the school system needs to protect them.”
“It’s not taking away somebody’s constitutional rights,” he said.
The Rosemary Hills outbreak affected three children and one adult, all in one kindergarten classroom, according to Chris Cram, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools.
MCPS is one of the nation’s biggest districts with 160,000 students, making it bigger than every district in Texas besides Houston, Cruz’s hometown.
“Masking is only one of the multiple measures we use, and is used temporarily and strategically in high risk situations,” Cram said, adding that anyone unable to mask due to a health condition or disability is exempted.
Public health experts said the way Rosemary Hills handled the outbreak is just right, to tamp down outbreaks while avoiding unnecessary inconvenience.
“Conditions for COVID vary widely across communities and people’s willingness to wear a mask reliably also varies,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University school of public health and White House coronavirus coordinator until the end of June.
“I don’t think it is appropriate for federal or even state-level politicians to second-guess what is best for local communities,” he said. “It is perfectly reasonable for schools to make these decisions based on local conditions.”
Cruz aides declined to elaborate on the senator’s views on masking in schools.
On his podcast, Cruz discussed the Rosemary Hills outbreak and castigated the school district’s actions to mitigate it.
”This is utterly absurd. Mask mandates are wrong,” he said Wednesday, in a segment repeated on the Saturday edition of the podcast. “This is all about controlling people, whether it’s mask mandates, whether it’s vaccine mandates, whether it’s having the 437th booster. Enough is enough is enough. This is crap.”
The MCPS policy tracks recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August 2022, calling for masking in classrooms with an outbreak in lieu of sending everyone home for a 10-day quarantine.
The Maryland Department of Education gives local districts authority to impose mask requirements. The policy states that “masks may be temporarily recommended or required in local outbreaks of respiratory illness.”
MCPS manages outbreaks by “high-risk cohorts,” Cram said – that is, younger grades and special education, where students spend most of the day in the same room with the same people.
Rosemary Hills, home of the Rhinos, serves kindergarten through the second grade. Last Tuesday, the principal alerted parents of an outbreak and informed them that masks would be required in the affected classroom.
Conservative talk show host Clay Travis posted the letter to parents on X, formerly Twitter, warning that, “They’re coming with masks for your kids again. Get ready. Read this insanity.” Cruz retweeted that with his own comment.
The uproar quickly snowballed. Local TV news crews descended on the school. District officials added police, fearing potential violence stirred by Cruz’s criticism. None occurred and there was no visible security presence Monday.
Noé Gomez, 28, a restaurant worker, has a 5-year-old in the class with the outbreak. The boy hasn’t caught it. He wears the mask all day, though he takes it off the moment he’s outside, dad said.
“The kids need protection. I don’t see another way,” he said. “I’m fine with them wearing the masks.”
The neighborhood is not Cruz territory.
In Montgomery County, Md., one of every 15 people over age 25 has a PhD. Many work for the military or federal government. Rosemary Hills itself is a mile “inside the Beltway” – a region defined both by Interstate 495 and by widespread compliance with masking and vaccine recommendations.
In the early days of the pandemic it was common to see handmade “In Fauci We Trust” signs in windows throughout the inner suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Cruz, by contrast, has labeled Dr. Anthony Fauci a “despot” who destroyed millions of lives with his advocacy for masking and lockdowns.
Three months into the pandemic, the senator defiantly showed up for a haircut from Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner who’d been jailed for refusing to keep her non-essential business closed during coronavirus lockdowns.
“It’s not for the whole school. What’s the big deal?” said Valentino Nicolai, 40, a restaurant worker waiting in a line of cars for his daughter after school.
She’s in second grade. Her class wasn’t affected and she wasn’t told to wear a mask. But Nicolai was glad the other kids were. His son, waiting with him in the car, has a chronic health condition, the dad said. That makes it harder to wear masks for a long time – and makes him vulnerable if the sister were to bring Covid-19 home.
“If there’s an outbreak, there should be masks. You’re affecting everyone in your household,” Nicolai said.
This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.