Experts Support Mask Mandates for Students but Say Vaccine Mandates Will Be More Difficult

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As many students across Maryland return to school this week while the delta variant continues to drive the state’s COVID-19 case rates higher, requiring masks inside school buildings is the “lowest hanging fruit” schools could take to protect against the coronavirus, public health experts told lawmakers on Monday.

“Children with masks on play just as hard and learn just as well as children without masks, but they’re protected from acquiring COVID and spreading it to others,” Karen L. Kotloff, a professor of pediatrics in the University of Maryland Medical System, told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

“I think that is the lowest hanging fruit and the easiest intervention that can be done,” she continued. “Masks are easy.”

Meanwhile, other measures such as requiring that students and teachers to get vaccinated or for students to maintain physical distance in classrooms are more difficult, she continued.

Mandating masks is a low-cost way to reduce COVID-19 transmission rates, said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Monday’s legislative meeting came after the Maryland State Board of Education passed a universal mask mandate for public schools in a hastily-scheduled meeting last week. Previously, the decision to issue masking mandates for students, teachers and staff was left to local school boards in reopening decisions to be approved by Maryland State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury.

By law, the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) has to approve the State Board of Education’s emergency regulation for it to go into effect. The committee is slated to vote on the matter at a public meeting on Sept. 14, allowing some school systems to start the school year without requiring masks.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) has the ability to waive the 10-business-day waiting period required before the AELR committee can vote on the emergency regulation, but Hogan said Monday that he does not plan to do so.

“I’m not going to create a state of emergency to waive the ability for legislators to hear from the citizens, they just have to do the process that they normally do,” Hogan told WBFF-TV.

Republican lawmakers also implored the committee to not rush the 10-day review period to allow for a deliberative process.

“We have serious concerns regarding the State Board of Education’s unprecedented usurpation of local control in mandating masking for students across Maryland,” a statement from the House Minority Caucus said.

During the Monday briefing, Sen. Jason C. Gallion (R-Cecil and Harford) suggested that only children with underlying medical conditions should wear N95s — tight-fitting, high-filtration medical masks — “instead of making all children wear these cloth masks.”

But Kotloff highlighted that healthy children could also contract the coronavirus.

“You don’t have to have an underlying condition to have a fatal COVID infection, and so how do you know which child that’s going to be … to protect that child’s life?” she said. Furthermore, the more a virus passes back and forth among a population, the more a virus can mutate and become more virulent, she continued.

“Pretty much anything that can happen to an adult can happen to a child,” Kotloff said. Longer-term effects of contracting the coronavirus can also afflict children, such as cognitive impairments, fatigue and chronic respiratory issues.

Nationally, the number of children with COVID-19 grew from 26,000 to 200,000 in the last week, according to Kotloff.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) questioned whether it was a good policy to have a “one size fits” approach if different areas in the state have different transmission rates.

But Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) underscored that every county in the state currently has a high or substantial transmission rate of 50-100 or more cases per 100,000.

“When everything is substantial, then I think it makes sense that the policy is fairly uniform,” Sell said. “When things come down, people can make some more of those nuanced decisions at lower levels.”

Mandating Vaccinations?

Montgomery and Prince George’s counties public school systems are requiring teachers and staff to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or to undergo weekly tests.

But mandating vaccines for children will be harder than mandating masks, said Daniel Salmon, the director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. If a vaccine mandate is implemented before it has widespread public support, it risks backlash which can significantly undermine the immunization effort.

However, the bar is different for teachers and staff, he continued. “That’s a workplace mandate, which is different. And teachers get to choose whether or not they want to be teachers and where they work and it’s an occupational hazard, so I think it’s a lower bar,” he said.

When people feel forced to get inoculated, “that’s frightening for people,” Kotloff said. Allowing people to express their fears about the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as informing them of the science is the best way to move forward, she continued.

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