Students, employees and visitors to Maryland’s public schools now must mask up, after state lawmakers signed off on a statewide mandate Tuesday.
The approval came following a lengthy public video hearing that veered between accusations that a mask mandate represents government overreach to pleas from parents that their students be protected against the coronavirus.
Much of the meeting focused on Carroll County, one of only two counties in Maryland that did not have its own mask requirement. Some of Carroll’s school board members defended their decision not to require masks, while parents from the county spoke on both sides of the issue.
The meeting of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review came after the Maryland State Board of Education approved an emergency regulation instituting mandatory masking in public schools in late August. Under state law, the emergency regulation couldn’t go into effect until getting the sign-off by the committee.
The vote was 10-7 among the lawmakers present, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans opposed. Ten votes are required on the 19-member committee to approve a regulation.
The mask requirement went immediately into effect once the vote was taken just before 2 p.m. Tuesday. Carroll County’s school board president, Marsha Herbert, issued a statement saying that while she was “disappointed and disheartened” by the vote, the school system would comply with the mask requirement.
Several opponents of the rule offered dubious claims about the lack of effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of the virus. One made a comparison to obesity, questioning why lawmakers aren’t taking steps to prevent it. Others claimed, without proof, that the state would be in line for an influx of additional federal funding if masks are required in public schools.
Dave Cooper, a Wicomico County parent, said he felt that the state school board and lawmakers were jumping to conclusions that masks are needed to slow the spread of the virus.
“You’re throwing darts at a dartboard,” he said.
The majority of public school districts in Maryland already adopted their own rules requiring masks, in line with recommendations from the Maryland State Department of Education and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And they hope to avoid sending students home en masse because of exposure to the virus, which has happened in states that started their school year earlier.
The vaccines against the coronavirus aren’t yet approved for children younger than 12, leaving them more vulnerable to infection than older people who are vaccinated.
The decision of whether or not to require masks has become a flashpoint in some parts of Maryland and beyond, leading to rallies and tense public school board meetings.
Mask supporters from Carroll County said Tuesday that they felt that school board members there have ignored medical advice and the needs of students in their determined push to open schools this year without masks.
Three Carroll school board members said the schools have enough virus-mitigation efforts in place, and pointed out that thousands of children attended summer learning programs without masks.
“Where is the emergency?” asked Donna M. Sivigny, a Carroll school board member. “There is a real cost to forcing students to wear masks for seven hours a day, day after day.”
Some parents suggested Carroll County has been fortunate not to have had more illness among young people so far, but that only masking and testing will keep it that way.
“They have gambled and they have admittedly gotten lucky, but at what cost?” asked Stephanie Brown of Carroll County. She said the cost has been stress and frustration with the school board’s reactive decisions instead of planning ahead with caution.
Matthew Stubblefield, a Carroll County parent, pressed lawmakers to override a school board that he said has not had the best interests of students, teachers and parents in mind.
“Please send a clear message that our children are important and need protection and are not for political games,” he said. “We need to follow the science and experts and do what they say.”
Some supporters of masks pointed out that schools may be violating federal laws that protect the rights of children with disabilities to receive an appropriate education in public schools.
Doctors have advised many medically fragile students should stay home if there aren’t rules for universal masking, said Megan Collins, an attorney with the nonprofit group Disability Rights Maryland. Those students are often now enrolled in home and hospital instruction programs, which offer less instruction time, she said.
Carroll County doesn’t offer a virtual option for schooling this year, said Maria Clark, who has a son with muscular dystrophy who can’t attend school in person without universal masks. Right now the school system is “giving him the very least they possibly can,” Clark said.
“Every child is supposed to be offered an appropriate education — not just some,” she said.
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Several Carroll County parents said the only real step that schools there are taking is to install an air purifier in classrooms. They noted that testing is only offered at one site in the county, masks haven’t been required and social distancing isn’t often possible in school buildings.
Clarence C. Crawford, president of the state school board, noted the board’s vote was overwhelmingly in favor of requiring masks and came after serious deliberation. Mask mandates in schools enjoy broad public support, he said.
“The board does not take this unilateral action lightly,” Crawford said.
Crawford and Mohammed Choudhury, state schools superintendent, said their goal has been to keep children and teachers in classrooms safely. If everyone wears masks, then fewer children will have to go home on quarantine when there’s a positive case in the classroom, they said.
They said the state school board will regularly assess the spread of the coronavirus and whether masks are still needed. Officially, the emergency regulation requiring masks will be in place until Feb. 22, which is 180 days since the state board voted.
“We will assess our position. If the situation merits a significant change, we are not going to be reluctant to make the change,” Crawford said. “We’ll just see.”
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Kristen Griffith contributed to this article.