Senators Call on State Board of Ed to Issue Universal Masking Mandate in Schools

Indoor Masking
Unsplash.com photo by Kelly Sikkema.

State senators sent a letter to the Maryland State Board of Education Wednesday ahead of its hastily-scheduled meeting Thursday, imploring board members to issue an emergency regulation requiring a universal masking mandate for students and teachers across the state.

“Continuous in-person instruction this school year is critical, and we must protect students’ ability to learn with other children in school buildings statewide throughout the year,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said in a statement. “We urge the State Board of Education to promulgate a temporary emergency regulation mandating that all children, faculty, and staff wear masks in every Maryland elementary and secondary school and congregate setting with children in any county with a substantial or high rate of COVID-19 transmission, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Ferguson touted the letter, signed by 32 of the body’s 47 legislators and sent to the Maryland State Board of Education Wednesday, as “bipartisan,” but only one Republican, Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County), chose to sign it.

The State Board of Education will vote on whether to implement an emergency regulation mandating universal masking at a meeting Thursday at 3 p.m.

Should the board decide to issue the masking requirement for students and staff across the state, the emergency regulation would need to be approved by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR). The committee is led by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City).

Because of its emergency status, the masking mandate would only be in effect for 180 days before its expiration.

According to the 1992 Research Guide for Maryland Regulations from the Division of State Documents, state agencies have the ability to promulgate, or permanently enact, emergency regulations legislatively or through the AELR committee’s regulatory review process.

The AELR Committee can also extend an emergency order if the agency in question is unable to complete the permanent adoption process prior to its expiration.

Thus far, each jurisdiction has been tasked with deciding its own school reopening plan, which must be approved by Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudury.

According to the Senate letter, five of Maryland’s 24 school systems have chosen to keep masking optional. Several of those jurisdictions have some of the state’s highest rates of COVID-19 transmission. On Wednesday night, Cecil County Superintendent of Schools Jeff Lawson announced that the school district would require masks for students and staff at the beginning of the school year.

“We deeply value the importance of local autonomy in public education, but, sadly, we know that COVID-19 does not respect political boundaries and state action is essential to establish a threshold health standard,” senators wrote.

At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Choudury said that he was looking to see if he had legal backing to deny school systems’ COVID-19 plans if they follow all of the State Department of Education and Department of Health recommendations except for universal masking.

“I have been very clear, all school systems should start the school year with masking,” he said.

Maryland Matters reached out to the U.S. Department of Education to ask if the agency has a stance on universal masking mandates in schools and if it would offer support if an in-school masking mandate in Maryland were to be legally challenged, but the agency did not  immediately respond.

“Impacted school communities outside Maryland have been forced to close and transition to virtual instruction to contain outbreaks,” the senators’ letter reads. “We must do everything reasonable in our power to minimize the risk to our students, many of whom are too young to receive COVID-19 vaccine to protect them from the most serious impacts of the virus.”

The debate over masks in school comes as the state’s COVID-19 metrics suggest a new wave of infections is under way following a welcome early-summer lull, fueled in large part by the spread of the more virulent delta variant.
  • The Department of Health reported 719 COVID hospitalizations on Tuesday, the most since May 13.
  • There are 7,089 people in the state’s acute-care and ICU hospital beds (a number that includes COVID and non-COVID patients), well above the 85% staffed-bed count (6,596) that facilities aim for.
  • On Wednesday the state reported 1,190 new infections, a 3,200% increase over the 36 new cases reported on June 29.
  • Maryland’s daily positivity rate (5.62%) and its 7-day rolling average (4.93%) far exceed the mid-June rates (0.52% and 0.73% respectively).
  • Approximately 6.5% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases since January have been among fully-vaccinated individuals.

Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), a candidate for governor in 2022, issued a statement at 5 a.m. Thursday saying he also favored a mask mandate for public schools.

“Our collective fight against this pandemic that has killed nearly 10,000 Marylanders and infected more than 489,000 of our friends and neighbors is far from over,” he said.

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.

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Editor’s note: This story was updated Thursday morning to add a development in Cecil County and a statement from the state comptroller.