Maryland’s state school board approved an emergency regulation Tuesday that allows students to go without masks if the community spread of COVID-19 in their county is moderate or if vaccination rates are above 80% in the school or the surrounding community.
The vote of the state board was 12 to one with Army National Guard Brig. General Warner I. Sumpter the lone vote against the regulation.
Students won’t be taking off their masks anytime soon, however, because no school system currently meets the requirements of the emergency regulation. State data show that no district has 80% of its staff and students vaccinated and community spread is at “substantial” levels in all 24 of Maryland’s school districts.
The emergency regulation also still needs legislative approval.
“It gives the local communities something to shoot for,” said Clarence Crawford, the state school board president. “We wanted to give them incentives to help drive the right behaviors in the community.”
Currently, anyone in a Maryland public school must be wearing a mask under a regulation which took effect in September.
The new regulation likely could appease some vocal opponents of the mandate who view it as an assault on their rights, while other parents will worry that COVID-19 spread will increase if the mandate is lifted.
The vote comes amid growing public concern about the new omicron variant of the virus and coronavirus cases are rising.
The regulation, if passed, could provide a powerful incentive to parents to have their children vaccinated.
State lawmakers on the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review are not likely to vote on the new emergency regulation until January, Crawford said. The regulation would take effect immediately after the legislators vote, and be good for another 180 days, or at least through the end of the school year.
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. Last week, the Republican governor said the state school board’s decision to pursue the new strategy seemed reasonable.
The new regulation provides three different scenarios that allow any of the state’s 24 school systems to lift the mask mandate.
First, a school system superintendent can lift the mandate for an individual school if it verifies that 80% of staff and students who are age five or older are vaccinated. Second, a local school board can vote at a public meeting to lift the mandate if 80% of the county population is vaccinated. Third, the local superintendent can lift the mandate if the county’s community transmission rate, according to the state health department, is low or moderate for the past 14 days. If the rate returns above moderate transmission, the school system must resume mandatory masking.
“I think it is a very reasonable set of expectations for off ramps for the mask mandate,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “I think it is an attainable bar and it has several options. Hopefully, it will incentivize parents to get their children vaccinated.”
Meeting the requirements to lift the mask mandate is likely to be most difficult in conservative counties where vaccination rates tend to be lower and community spread is higher, but also where parents have been most vocal about taking off the masks.
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For example, since the end of October only Howard, Charles and Montgomery counties have had transmission in the moderate range. Across the state the number of outbreaks in schools has been on the rise since the end of October. There were 130 school outbreaks as of Dec. 1, according to state data.
In central Maryland more than 80% of teachers are vaccinated, but the rate for students is far lower.
The state school board has debated the mask mandate in two special meetings where the public gave hours of comment and experts testified. Last week, the board directed its staff to draft a new mandate for masking that would include “off ramps” for systems to lift such requirements in the future.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Maryland’s Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said states that have prohibited masks in schools have seen outbreaks in the virus that have shut down dozens of schools and in some cases whole school districts. Maryland has avoided closing all but one school in Carroll County for two days because of the mask mandate, he said.
Maryland’s new regulation is similar to a rule in Massachusetts, Choudhury said. In that state, even as the cases rose and students began taking off their masks, the state has not seen a surge in school cases.
Local school leaders in Maryland still can require masking even if the community meets the vaccination or transmission requirements.
Choudhury had asked board members not to lift the current emergency regulation requiring masking — but to create ways for school systems to get to an optional mask policy in the future.