With overwhelming support from members of the Maryland State Board of Education, students and staffers will be subject to a universal masking mandate for the 2021-2022 academic year, an emergency vote confirmed Thursday.
“I don’t come to this decision lightly,” said Maryland State Board of Education President Clarence C. Crawford. “My preference would be to defer to local authorities, but, with that deference, I’m a strong believer in accountability.”
Board members voted 14-1 to implement the emergency regulation.
That vote followed a unanimous vote, at the close of the board’s eight-hour meeting Tuesday, to decide Thursday on whether to require that students wear masks in all Maryland public schools.
The only dissent came from Board Member Gail H. Bates, a former state senator who represented Carroll and Howard counties. She said she believes students need to return to the classroom but would prefer that jurisdictions not have their hands tied by a statewide mandate.
“The concern I have is that, right now, the local jurisdictions already have the ability to do this,” Bates said. “This is a one-size-fits-all, and, when I look at the numbers, they seem to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and I just would prefer to keep the flexibility within the jurisdiction to do what’s best for their students. And I think that they would do that.”
Prior to Thursday’s vote, the decision to issue masking mandates for students and teachers was left for each of Maryland’s 24 school systems to determine in reopening plans to be approved by Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudury.
Most school systems have opted to implement in-school masking mandates on their own, including Cecil County, whose Superintendent of Schools announced Wednesday night that the district would require face coverings at the start of the school year.
In a letter to the State Board of Education Wednesday, 32 state senators implored the State Board of Education to issue the universal masking emergency regulation, noting that the remaining few school systems that hadn’t yet mandated masking also had high rates of COVID-19 transmission.
“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.
State Board of Education Member Shawn D. Bartley said during the emergency meeting Thursday that he would have voted with Bates if all school systems had agreed to follow the state Department of Health and the Department of Education recommendations, but that hasn’t been the case.
Now that the board has voted, the fate of the masking mandate lies in the hands of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR).
It is up to that committee, headed by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), to approve or disapprove the State Board of Education’s emergency regulation.
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) applauded the State Board of Education’s decision Thursday, saying that the AELR Committee will “work expeditiously to approve this emergency regulation.”
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) is now calling on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) to waive the 10-day waiting period that is required prior to the AELR Committee’s vote on whether to approve the emergency regulation.
“Our children can’t wait,” Jones said.
According to Choudury, the proposed emergency regulation is being put in place to reduce the spread of the pandemic in the state’s public schools and to limit how long students need to spend outside of the classroom.
There are 12 exemptions to masking in the language of the proposal, including when students are eating and drinking, and for those with disabilities that would prohibit them from safely wearing a face covering.
Choudury said that this emergency regulation does not prevent local jurisdictions from implementing additional safety standards.
Because of its emergency status, the mandate would only be in place for 180 days — the minimum length of a school year in Maryland — before expiring.
Choudury said that the State Board of Education should expect to receive monthly jurisdictional reports on COVID-19 in schools. These reports should give them the ability to reassess whether the regulation needs to stand for the full 180-day period.
‘Would you rather have your kids be back online?’
Speaking from lived experience, Student State Board of Education Member Kevin Bokoum said that masking is “barely even a burden” in comparison to having to transition back to online learning.
“…[T]o the opponents of wearing a mask: Would you rather have your kids be back online? Would you rather have to go through all these shutdowns again?” Bokoum asked.
Rachel L. McCusker, the board’s teacher representative, agreed.
“As a teacher who has taught with students masking, they do very well,” McCusker said. “It’s my goal, and I think the goal of this board, to have as many students as possible in classrooms receiving live instruction so that we can catch them up on their skills and we can help them to move forward so that they can be with their friends, and have the social and emotional contact that they have been missing at home.”
Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) joined in on the call for universal masking in schools early Thursday morning, noting that the impact the delta variant could exert on the state’s youth is still uncertain.
Franchot, a 2022 gubernatorial candidate, also said that he supports mandatory vaccinations for school staff and daily testing for those with religious or medical exemptions.
“When it comes to the health and welfare of our children, we can’t take enough precautions to ensure that they are able to safely learn,” he said in a statement.
But not everyone is pleased with universal masking in schools.
Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick), also a 2022 candidate for governor, has railed against masking mandates, calling them “ghastly oxygen blockers” in a post on his official Facebook page.
“Please e-mail the Maryland Board of Education before today’s meeting and vote at 3 p.m. and demand no face covering mandate for our kids,” Cox wrote in another Facebook post Thursday morning.
And a group of parents’ rights organizations has planned to hold a rally in Annapolis Saturday in protest of universal masking in schools.
“Masks are developmentally inappropriate for young children in particular and, importantly, research hasn’t shown they prevent COVID-19 spread in schools,” Kit Collins Hart of Bring Back Smiles in Archdiocese of Baltimore Schools said in a statement. “We need to prioritize the well-being of kids, not the feelings of anxious adults.”
Bartley said ahead of his affirmative vote Thursday afternoon that he “understands some citizens’ concerns” about their political freedom and liberty, but doesn’t believe that the universal masking mandate infringes upon either.
“Wearing a mask, in my opinion, does not limit the freedom of an individual and it doesn’t limit the freedom of the child, but rather it mitigates the possibility of the child contracting COVID-19,” he said. “I will err on the side of caution and liberty and side with the board in putting forth this masking mandate.”