Maryland’s State Board of Education is directing state officials to draft a new emergency mandate for masking in public schools that will include “off ramps” for systems to lift such requirements in the future.
Board members voted 12-2 on Wednesday to call for a new masking plan for the state’s 24 public school systems after hearing from Maryland’s Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury. The new superintendent asked board members not to lift the current emergency regulation requiring masking in schools through Feb. 15 — but to create ways for school systems to get to an optional mask policy in the future.
“It is time to think about off ramps,” Choudhury said of the statewide school masking requirement, which has been in place for most of the school year.
The superintendent asked board members to consider tying school masking requirements to COVID-19 metrics, such as student and employee vaccination rates or community transmission.
Other states have taken similar approaches. In Massachusetts, some schools with 80% or more vaccinated students are permitted to lift their mask mandate.
Some Maryland school board members said they were reluctant to tie the expiration of a masking mandate to vaccination rates in children, citing concerns over bullying and the effectiveness of vaccines against new variants of the COVID-19 virus.
The Maryland State Department of Education must draft and present a new mandate to school board members, including suggested start dates for when the new mandate may be enacted.
Emergency regulations are only temporary and the mask mandate will expire Feb. 25 unless the state board takes action to extend it. The board also could decide to let the regulation expire, or it could pass a new regulation.
Whether masks should be worn in schools has become a divisive issue in the past several months as some parents have pushed the state to drop the mandate that took effect in September as cases rose during the pandemic. A few have interrupted school board meetings and others have threatened in Facebook posts to sue state school board members.
Concerned that the state would experience the kind of school disruption that was seen in Southern states that opened ahead of Maryland schools without mask mandates, the state school board passed an emergency regulation Aug. 26 that required staff and students to wear masks in schools to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
State lawmakers then approved the mandate Sept. 14 shortly after school began. All the Republicans on the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review voted against the mask mandate, but it passed. Under state law, the emergency regulation couldn’t go into effect until the committee gave its approval. At the time, all but Carroll County had decided to require masks.
Gov. Larry Hogan could have required students to wear masks, but he declined to take a position last August, saying he would leave it up to local leaders.
“I don’t think we need to change the policy at this point,” Hogan said Wednesday, adding that the state school board operates independently and members will make its own decision.
In passing its mandate in August, the state board took a rare stand in favor of a state rule. During the pandemic, the state has rarely intervened in local decision-making, at times to the dismay of superintendents and boards who wished they had political cover to require certain actions. Local school boards have come under intense pressure during the pandemic as parent protesters temporarily shut down school board meetings and wrote hundreds of letters to get schools reopened.
Only one member of the board voted against the emergency mask mandate in August, but several expressed skepticism about taking away local control.
At a meeting in November, the state school board heard testimony from parents and doctors about whether they should extend the mandate.
Melissa Idleman, an Anne Arundel County parent, told board members that parents had followed the mandate at the cost of their children’s health and well-being. She said alcoholism, opioid overdoses and suicides had increased and that the board did not understand or represent her community. Idleman said she is part of an anti-mask group called Moms for Liberty.
On the other side, parents asked the board to continue a mandate that they said had allowed schools to continue to operate relatively normally.
“The majority of schools and classrooms have avoided the closures and outbreaks that we have seen rampant in schools that did not require masks,” said Kristen Caminiti, who has four children in Anne Arundel County schools.
“There are so many parents making masking out to be an evil when it is not,” said Caminiti, noting that her son sat next to an infected child in school but he didn’t get COVID-19 or have to quarantine because he was masked and vaccinated. “Masking and vaccination are allowing for the continuation of education for countless children.”
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Three doctors also testified, and while they differed in some of their views about how long to continue the mandate, all of them agreed the mandate should remain in place at least until the majority of students were able to be fully vaccinated.
“We have no evidence that taking off masks in schools now would be safe. As much as my heart yearns for little kids to [not] have to wear masks. I would say at this point I would be cautious,” said Dr. Larry Gostin, director of the O’Neil Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.
Dr. Lucy McBride, a Maryland internist, said she does not believe there is evidence to suggest that masks help contain the spread in a classroom, although her other colleagues disagreed. She said once there is equitable access to the vaccine, she would lift the mask mandate. Few children are now hospitalized in the state and she said the risk of spread appears to have slowed.
“We have to remember the adults can protect themselves with vaccination,” McBride said. “We have to keep our own fears in check. I worry that waiting and seeing is doing a lot of harm to our children that could last generations that is difficult to measure.”
However, Dr. Monique Soileau-Burke, vice president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, supported continuing the mask mandate.
“The mental health problems we see are astounding,” she said, but she added that the vaccine is not available to every family and that Black and Latino families may not be able to get their children vaccinated as quickly as they would like. “Right now, until we have everyone with an opportunity to be vaccinated, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises continued mask-wearing.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.