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Maryland Dept. of Education ‘strongly recommends’ masking in schools. Half of school systems say it will be optional.

The Maryland Department of Education strongly recommended multiple COVID-19 mitigation strategies for schools Friday, but stopped short of mandating vaccinations and mask-wearing before students return to school later this month.

The department, in partnership with the Maryland Department of Health, issued a detailed list of recommendations for public and nonpublic schools and child care centers aimed at ensuring in-person learning this fall. The 12-page document includes step-by-step instructions for how schools and child care facilities should respond to confirmed cases of COVID in schools.

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The guidance comes as some school leaders and parents have called on the state to take a stronger stance of universal masking for schools. Students under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for coronavirus vaccines, worrying some who fear the beginning of the school year could bring its own spike of cases, particularly with the aggressive delta variant of the disease now prevalent.

As of Friday, half of Maryland’s 24 local school systems won’t require masks this fall.

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In the Baltimore region, most school systems will be requiring masking for students and employees. The exception is Carroll County. Despite encouragement from county health officer Ed Singer to follow CDC guidelines, the county school board decided Wednesday against requiring masks.

“Masks should be optional unless mandated by the governor otherwise,” board member Donna Sivigny said at its meeting.

She cited emails from elementary teachers who said the masks inhibit effective learning as one of her reasons.

Singer said a mask mandate for county schools would keep more students in school by reducing the number who must quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID.

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Politicians call for statewide requirements for vaccines, masks

Del. Maggie McIntosh, who co-chaired a hearing this week on reopening schools, said it’s “very concerning” that the lack of statewide requirements for vaccines and masks means that there will be policies that vary from one district to another.

”The only way we’re going to open our schools safely this year is to get everyone vaccinated who can, and to wear masks,” said McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is a former teacher. “Otherwise, you’re going to be closing schools, closing districts and sending people home.”

Children have suffered during the pandemic, missing out on classroom time and socializing with friends, and may suffer more if the virus rips through mask-free schools, said Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat.

”We’ve required children to make sacrifices for adults,” Smith said. “It’s only reasonable that if they’re the ones who can’t protect themselves, that adults do everything they can for them.”

To Smith, that means adults should put policies in place requiring vaccines for employees and masks for everyone in schools.

”The absolute floor of what should be mandated is masking by students and all folks inside of the school,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s even debatable. The science is clear that this variant is more easily transmitted.”

Teachers union: Vaccination numbers must increase to protect students

The state’s largest teachers union, meanwhile, said it supports local collaboration on establishing a layered mitigation strategy, which potentially includes universal masking, social distancing, attention to ventilation deficits, rigorous contact tracing and increased coronavirus testing.

A safe and healthy return to in-person instruction is the top back-to-school priority, said Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost.

“We are prepared to work with local superintendents and boards of education to promote vaccines and develop protocols by which all employees either have proof of vaccination or are subject to frequent coronavirus testing,” Bost said.

The union president said that vaccination numbers must increase to protect students and to have in-person school this year.

COVID outbreaks, closures have happened already outside Maryland

In some school districts around the country where the academic term begins earlier, officials are dealing with outbreaks and closures as large numbers of students are forced to quarantine after coming into contact with an infected person.

The Kershaw County School District in South Carolina saw more than 100 students and 20 staff members test positive for the virus in the first week after opening schools. And more than 900 students quarantined in Arkansas’ Marion School District, where there were about 70 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff in the second week of school.

Schools in Dallas are requiring students and teachers to wear masks on campuses, defying Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that bars districts from issuing mask mandates.

In addition to masking, Maryland education and health leaders are recommending the promotion of vaccines among employees and students, physical distancing, screening tests for the virus, ventilation in classrooms and hand washing.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Pamela Wood and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Kristen Griffith contributed to this article.

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