As hundreds of thousands of Maryland children returned to public schools Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan said he won’t speed up a key vote on requiring masks inside school buildings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The state Board of Education voted last week to mandate masks in schools throughout the state, but the rule can’t go into effect until approved by a joint committee of state delegates and senators that reviews emergency regulations.
The Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee is required by law to wait 10 business days to vote — until Sept. 14 in this case — unless the governor decides that a sufficient emergency exists to warrant waiving the waiting period.
Democratic leaders of the General Assembly had urged Hogan, a Republican, to “waive the wait.”
After not answering questions about the waiting period last week, Hogan’s office said Monday that he won’t get involved.
“We will not interfere with the General Assembly’s process,” said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the governor.
Earlier in the day, as Hogan stopped in Baltimore, he told WBFF-TV: “I’m not going to create a state of emergency to waive the ability for legislators to hear from the citizens. They just have to do the process as they normally do. It doesn’t really change much, except for those handful of kids in a couple of rural counties.”
Democrats were prepared to hold a public hearing and vote on the school mask rule as early as Monday, and continued to press their case with the governor.
“Governor Hogan has been a leader in masking up during the COVID-19 pandemic — but is fumbling the ball on the one-yard line,” said Alexandra Hughes, chief of staff to House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, in a statement Monday. “The most vulnerable Marylanders still need protection — especially in rural counties where cases are spiking. Speaker Jones reiterates her call for him to waive the 10-day wait period.”
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, stressed the need for the process to be deliberative and not rushed.
“We have serious concerns regarding the State Board of Education’s unprecedented usurpation of local control in mandating masking for students across Maryland,” read a statement from House of Delegates Republicans.
They said the 10-day waiting period is important for the public to review “impactful policy changes” made by “an unelected and unaccountable government bureaucracy.”
The Republican statement noted that parents still have the option to have their children wear masks in the classroom, even in counties where they are not required.
Most school districts already decided on their own to require masks in schools this year. But a handful decided not to require masks, including Carroll County, which prompted the state school board’s decision to go forward with a statewide mandate.
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Carroll’s school board planned a special meeting for Monday night to discuss the state’s mandate.
With children younger than 12 still unable to be vaccinated, there are concerns that schools could become hotbeds for the virus to spread. That’s especially concerning as hospital pediatric units are treating an increasing number of kids with the coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses.
Public health experts told senators during a briefing Monday that wearing masks is a simple, low-cost way to limit the spread of the virus in schools. Other measures are more challenging, such as requiring staff or eventually students to be vaccinated, or attempting to space out students in the tight confines of classrooms.
Sen. Jason Gallion, a Republican representing Cecil and Harford counties, seized upon one expert noting that most of the children who have died from the coronavirus had other health conditions.
He suggested that children with risk factors could wear N95 masks to protect themselves “instead of making all children wear these cloth masks.”
Dr. Karen L. Kotloff, a pediatrician and University of Maryland School of Medicine professor, replied that even healthy young people face a risk of serious illness and death.
“You don’t have to have an underlying condition to have a fatal COVID infection,” Kotloff said. “How do you know which children that will be?”