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Education

Maryland lawmakers rescind school mask mandate

Maryland lawmakers voted Friday to rescind a statewide emergency regulation that had mandated the use of face masks in schools since August.

The General Assembly’s joint administrative, executive and legislative review committee gave the final approval in a 17-1 vote Friday to lift the mandate at the request of the State Board of Education and Maryland Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury. Local counties and school boards may shift to a mask-optional policy as early as Tuesday, or continue to maintain masking until a later date.

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“We can’t mask our kids forever,” Choudhury said after citing the availability of vaccines, rapid testing and improving health metrics. “This is the time to do it.”

The State Board of Education voted Tuesday to rescind the regulation, which recently was expanded to include “offramps” that would allow school systems to lift masking requirements if they reached specific health metrics.

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Less than an hour after the hearing adjourned, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated masking guidelines that say healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks in counties where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals.

At least four school systems — Anne Arundel, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery — already have qualified to lift their masking requirements under the state regulation’s new “offramps,” Maryland State Department of Education officials said this week. Face coverings are optional in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Frederick county schools; Howard County schools announced that they would make masks optional next week.

Baltimore County school leaders said masks will become optional on Tues. March 1, according to a tweet from the school system.

The county’s transmission levels are currently low, according to the CDC.

Baltimore City schools will continue to rely on guidance from the Baltimore City Health Department and local health professionals in considering changes to universal masking policies, a representative said Tuesday.

Ahead of the lawmakers’ vote Friday, students, parents, grandparents and education activists testified both in favor of and against reversing the mandate.

Disability Rights Maryland attorney Megan Jones told lawmakers that repealing the mandate puts some children with disabilities at greater health risk while the pandemic persists. The organization opposed the mandate’s withdrawal and said it is necessary to prevent discrimination.

Rescinding it “will create an unsafe environment for many Maryland students and will exclude some students with disabilities from attending schools,” Jones said.

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A number of parents who testified came from Carroll County, where the school board has repeatedly challenged the state’s authority to require masks in schools and earlier this month filed a lawsuit over the matter against the Maryland State Department of Education.

Carroll County mother Kit Hart, whose children attend Catholic school, told lawmakers that she believes some parents are beholden to “the most fearful among us.” She helped organize a rally Tuesday outside of the State Board of Education meeting during which members considered lifting the mandate.

“We need to get back to families being in charge of decisions for their children and local authorities making decisions for their communities,” she said this week.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan joined his party’s legislative leadership earlier this month in calling for the mandate and its offramps to be rescinded, citing the availability of vaccines and recent improving health metrics.

Following the vote, Hogan took to Twitter to claim the decision as an “important victory for students and parents.”

Meanwhile, other states around the country including Connecticut, Delaware and Massachusetts are moving toward optional masking as the worst wave of the pandemic — brought on by the highly contagious omicron variant — appears to ease.

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Maryland surpassed 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases Friday in the approximately two years since the pandemic began.


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