Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan urged the State Board of Education to rescind its school masking policy in light of recent improving health metrics following a COVID-19 surge tied to the omicron variant.
In a letter delivered Thursday, the Republican governor cited the widespread availability of vaccines and improvements in the state’s COVID-19 health metrics this month.
The state’s 7-day positivity rate fell to 5.12%, with 986 people hospitalized by the virus — down from a peak of nearly 30% positivity and nearly 3,500 hospitalizations last month.
The state Board of Education approved an emergency regulation in December that creates an “off ramp” to a statewide mask mandate for school systems to allow students to go without masks. Mandates may be lifted if a county’s community spread of COVID-19 is moderate or if vaccination rates are above 80% in the school or the surrounding community. Community transmission remains high in every Maryland county, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hogan said in the letter that it was “critical to move toward normalcy for students and families.”
“We have seen the harmful effects of prolonged school closures on the education, health, and emotional well-being of Maryland students,” he said. “The consequences include failing grades, regressed social development, and increased mental health challenges. If these trends are not reversed quickly, we face the unthinkable prospect of a generation left behind, both academically and socially.”
Student performance nationwide has suffered since the pandemic disrupted three consecutive academic years. In Maryland, failure rates were found to have doubled or tripled in some school systems last year.
Hogan’s letter comes two days after he said he would ask the State Board of Education to revisit the school masking policy at its meeting later this month.
Other states including Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon announced in recent days they would end school mask mandates some time in March. Connecticut plans to end its school mandate by the end of February. All four states will allow local school districts to maintain mandates if they choose.
The Maryland State Board of Education pointed to a statement it released earlier this week stating that its members are “watching with optimism as COVID-19 metrics improve in the State because our goal has been and continues to be to provide safe in person instruction for our children and staff with minimal disruptions.”
The board reviews COVID-19 metrics at its meetings each month in order to assess the need for such regulations as the mask mandate, according to the statement.
“We, too, share your desire not to let this pandemic distract us from aggressively addressing the learning loss and social emotional harm this pandemic has done to our children,” board president Clarence Crawford said in a statement addressed to Hogan. “We look forward to working with you and stakeholders across the state to provide an excellent and equitable education for every Maryland child.”
Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson both said Wednesday they agreed with the board’s requirements for local school districts.
“I think it was a thoughtful series of regulations put forward,” Ferguson said. “I expect they will remain in place until we see something different from the Board.”
In a statement Thursday, Maryland’s Republican legislative leaders, including the Senate and House minority leaders, applauded Hogan’s action.
“As COVID-19 metrics improve statewide, we need a return to normal in classrooms where teachers and students can interact and see each other’s faces,” the statement read.
At least one Baltimore-area school district have sided with Hogan. On Wednesday, Carroll County’s school board members unanimously called for an end to the mask mandate in public schools and authorized legal counsel to file a petition in Carroll County Circuit Court seeking a declaratory judgment that the statewide rules are “contrary to Maryland law.”
Other school systems across the region say they will continue to follow the state board’s regulation. Baltimore City will consider guidance from the Baltimore City Health Department and local health professionals before making any changes.
“The needs and desires of our students, staff, and families — as well as our COVID testing data — will also play a critical role in any decision,” spokesman André Riley said in a statement.
Baltimore County schools “will continue to follow MSDE’s requirement and will make a decision if and when MSDE lifts its requirement and in consultation with our health professionals and partners,” said spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.
Harford County’s schools have not reached any of the milestones that would allow the school system to act on “off ramps,” said spokeswoman Jillian Lader in an email. The system did not take a position on the governor’s letter.
Meanwhile, the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing the state’s classroom teachers and other certificated school employees, supports the existing regulation on masking in schools. The state school board approved the policy after considering input from community stakeholders and public health officials before it was ultimately approved by legislators, union president Cheryl Bost said.
The State Board of Education “took a very balanced approach,” she said. “I think the governor is having a very knee-jerk reaction right now.”
When the governor places pressure on state education leaders, it can create anxiety and uncertainty for parents and educators, Bost said.
”We don’t need these constant drops of pressure that causes some divisiveness,” she said. “We’re trying to calm the trauma for our students. This does not help.”
Given recent coronavirus data, it doesn’t appear that Maryland is ready to remove the mask mandate, said Christopher Thompson, an immunologist and associate professor in the biology department at Loyola University of Maryland.
While Maryland’s case rates have dropped significantly since omicron’s peak, they haven’t improved substantially when compared to figures from early 2021, he said. Maryland is reporting an average of about 1,500 new COVID-19 cases a day.
Plus, young students remain among the most vulnerable to getting infected with COVID-19 because they are less likely to be vaccinated, Thompson said.
Fewer than half of Maryland’s youngsters between 5 and 11 years old have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 95% of the state’s adult population.
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And while children are less likely to have intense cases of the virus, they still come into contact with adults, including school staff, who could suffer more severe symptoms, Thompson said. Masking may be even more critical during omicron’s spread, since the strain spreads more easily. That’s why some experts have pushed for increased uptake on medical-grade masks, rather than just cloth masks.
But even if children are not wearing N95 masks, cloth masks are better than nothing, Thompson said.
Thompson said he wants his 7-year-old son to continue wearing masks in school, partially to protect his grandparents, and any immunocompromised people he may come into contact with.
“You’re kind of gambling, and I’m just not game for that,” Thompson said.
The inconsistent messaging coming from different state leaders could complicate the jobs of teachers and administrators, who already faced immense challenges when omicron’s surge sent hundreds of students and teachers home to quarantine, and even shuttered some local school buildings temporarily, said Annette C. Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, led by the university’s School of Education.
“Just as were coming out of this omicron surge, now we’re going to go into having to navigate this mask mandate update,” she said. “I don’t know how many times in a school year we can expect our school leaders to have to pivot.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Christine Condon, Bryn Stole, Molly Fellin Spence and Tony Roberts contributed to this article.