Despite strong recommendations from both health and education leaders, masking will not be required in every Maryland school to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, as political leaders defer decisions about mandates to others amid vocal opposition.
The result could be a logistical nightmare for schools, with hundreds of students quarantined at home without access in most districts to the online classes they had last year.
Mandates are a crucial question, because students wearing masks are less likely to have to quarantine under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols that Maryland education officials have adopted.
If a classroom of 25 students is masked and one of them comes down with COVID-19, no one but the sick student has to stay home. If children in the classroom are not masked, anyone in close contact with someone who tests positive must stay home for at least 7 days.
Chaos has disrupted schools elsewhere that have opened without mask mandates. Mississippi has 20,000 students quarantined and South Carolina and Arkansas also had hundreds out of school.
In Texas, several districts have shut school down as cases of the virus surged. And by Thursday, five Florida school districts were defying their governor’s order and instituting mask mandates after thousands of their students were quarantined. Hillsborough County alone had sent home about 10,000 students in the first week of school, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Maryland has not seen the virus spread as quickly as those states, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is not going to institute a school mask mandate.
“No statewide mask mandates of any kind are under discussion” said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan. “Businesses, school systems, and local jurisdictions are free to set their own policies, and we support their ability to do so.”
State education officials in Maryland say they do not have the legal authority to order students and staff to wear masks in schools. That authority rests with the governor, state health officials, and local school boards and superintendents, they said.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office said the state board of education could mandate vaccines or masks with an emergency regulation, said spokeswoman Raquel Coombs. An emergency regulation could only last for 180 days and would have to be approved by a legislative committee.
State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said he hopes school systems will follow the updated guidance issued a week ago, which says that masks should be worn inside schools, on buses and outside schools if unvaccinated people are close together.
In addition to masking, the guidance recommends schools improve ventilation and cleaning, and require social distancing and regular testing.
“School systems who are still deciding, you should start off the year with the guidance we have published,” Choudhury said. “I strongly recommend that you mask up in the beginning of the school year.”
Maryland State School Board President Clarence Crawford said that if school systems aren’t following the recommendations, there ought to be consequences. The priority, he said, is keeping schools open after a year of learning loss and emotional and social disruption.
“If they choose not to follow the guidance and they have a major disruption, there should be some accountability for that,” Crawford said.
State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, said politics is getting in the way of good policies.
“You have this noisy minority in the Republican party who obviously Hogan has to pay attention to and is slowing the administration down from doing what is obviously the right thing to do,” he said.
Fourteen states have mandated masks in schools, but none of them are controlled by Republican governors, according to Burbio, a company tracking the issue.
Rosapepe said local school leaders are also to blame because they could be requiring students and staff to be vaccinated, as well as masked. It is likely that the coming year will bring unpredictable outbreaks, he said, and two strategies — masking and vaccinations — work.
Currently, Baltimore City as well as Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are requiring school staff to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. The teachers unions support the policies.
Nine of Maryland’s 24 school districts did not have a mandatory mask requirement, according to the most recent data available from the state education department updated with school district decisions from this week.
Last school year, as systems slowly brought students back to buildings and before vaccinations were common, students were required to wear masks and stay six feet away from others.
But since then, parents in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties have protested mask requirements at school board meetings. And a Facebook group was formed to encourage parents to pull their children out of schools if masks were required.
Children have been largely spared the worst of the disease during the pandemic. And while they still are avoiding the hospital in Maryland much of the time, state data shows youth cases are rising as the more contagious delta variant causes a surge in new infections. Those age 19 and younger make up 16% of all infections reported during the pandemic. But as more teens and adults get vaccinated, infections in children have been closer to a quarter of cases reported each day in recent weeks. On Friday, cases in children made up close to 27% of cases reported.
Even hospitalizations are rising. Children account for about 2% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations over the last two months, twice the share as in the beginning of pandemic, according to Dr. Ted Delbridge, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.
The state should employ “all the strategies” at its disposal to curb the spread of the delta variant, which is driving more infection and, thus, more breakthrough infections in individuals who already are vaccinated, said Dr. Greg, Schrank, associate hospital epidemiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
“Masking, especially in indoor spaces, would be a large help, and working toward authorization of the vaccines for younger children,” said Schrank, who is also an assistant professor at the university’s medical school.
Christopher Thompson, associate professor in Loyola University Maryland’s biology department, said masks have been proven to slow transmission and prevent new, more contagious variants from forming.
As more children head back to school this fall, and masks remain optional for some, the virus will have ample opportunity to infect kids and mutate into a more dangerous strain, he said.
”It makes it challenging and it puts a lot of responsibility on each school district trying to manage these things without the backup of a mandate,” Thompson said.
“The models are clear that if we have a mask mandate, and 95% of the population wears masks indoors and in crowded situations, the peak is over, and we almost immediately begin to drop,” he said. “Masking is very, very important and great at protecting those who can’t be protected by vaccines.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.