A legislative committee is slated to hold a public hearing Tuesday morning before voting to approve or disapprove the Maryland State Board of Education’s emergency regulation requiring masks to be worn inside all public school buildings for the current academic year.
The decision to issue masking mandates for students, staff and teachers was initially left to each of Maryland’s 24 school systems, but the State Board of Education voted last month to approve an emergency regulation requiring masks in all public school buildings for 180 days — the minimum length of a school year in Maryland.
By virtue of the uncertainty of COVID-19, school board decisions on issuing mask mandates were in flux during the weeks before schools reopened this year. All but two school districts — Carroll County and Somerset County — are already requiring masks to be worn indoors. Dorchester County Public Schools initially kept masks optional, but when the State Board of Education issued its universal mask mandate in late August, the school district reversed its decision and mandated masks indoors in time for the first day of school on August 30, said Valerie Goff, spokesperson for Dorchester County Public Schools.
However, emergency regulations must be approved by the General Assembly’s Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) Committee, headed by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City).
If the AELR committee votes in favor of the emergency regulation, a universal mask mandate for public schools will go into effect right away, Elfreth said.
“I believe it’s our job to take politics out of this situation,” Elfreth said. “It’s about keeping kids healthy and safe and keeping them in the best learning environment possible — which is in person — and the best way to do that is to have this mask mandate.”
By law, the committee has to wait 10 business days before voting on emergency regulations, but lawmakers called on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to waive the 10-day waiting period. Hogan said he was “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.” This allowed some schools to start the academic year without mask requirements.
There were 60 slots open for public testimony for the AELR committee hearing Tuesday and 35 people signed up to testify. “We really did our very best to make sure that we provided an open forum for folks who are proponents and folks who are opponents of the regulation,” Elfreth said. Of those giving oral testimony, 12 people are expected to testify against the regulations and 23 people are testifying in favor of the regulations.
Rosenberg said he plans to vote to support the emergency regulation. “I think it’s appropriate, as a health measure, to protect the wellbeing of everybody in the classroom and in the school building — and that supersedes any individual burden.”
“We will give both sides an opportunity to make their case,” Rosenberg continued. “It will be a fair hearing.”
If the emergency regulation passes, local school systems are required by state law to immediately begin implementing the State Board of Education’s mask requirement, said Lora Rakowski, spokeswoman for MSDE. Local school systems can establish additional requirements too, she continued.
“This legislative decision will allow for consistency across all Maryland public schools. Our main goal as superintendents is to employ safe mitigation strategies to keep our students and staff in a face-to-face learning environment,” Patricia Saelens, the president of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland and superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Public Schools, said in a statement.
If the AELR committee votes to reject the universal mask mandate, it will be under each local school district’s jurisdiction to issue a mask mandate and for how long.
Mask requirements in schools have been a contentious topic in many parts of the country, including in Carroll County, where parents and local leaders pushed aggressively against mask mandates.
The Carroll County Board of Education plans to implement a mask mandate only if it is approved by the AELR committee and anticipates that this could happen as early as September 15th, according to Carey Gaddis, spokesperson for Carroll County Public Schools.
At a board meeting last month, the Carroll County Board of Education approved a motion made by board member Donna Sivigny to request an exception at the AELR committee hearing “based on our existing layered strategies, conditions and use of technology.” The board also voted to request flexibility to lift the mandate at the local level based on local COVID-19 conditions, rather than abide by a blanket 180-day policy.
If the legislative committee approves the universal mask mandate and a student refuses to wear a mask, Carroll County schools will work with the student and the parent so that the student does not miss school, Gaddis said. If a student still refuses to wear a mask, the school will take disciplinary action, which will be decided by the principal, Gaddis continued.