The Maryland State Board of Education heard a range of opinions from a slew of parents, teachers, county board members and health experts Tuesday as they consider withdrawing the statewide mandate requiring masks to be worn in public school buildings, but Board President Clarence Crawford said the panel will decide whether to stop or continue the mask mandate at its next meeting in December.
After more than four hours of testimony, the board did not get a “silver bullet” answer, Crawford said, but he reminded board members of their ultimate goal of returning children to safe in-person learning with as little disruption as possible.
In August, the State Board of Education voted 14-1 to enact an emergency universal masking order for this academic year and state lawmakers gave final approval in September. The mandate requires all teachers, students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside school buildings. It expires on Feb. 25, 2022 but can be lifted earlier, according to Crawford.
In April, the board passed a resolution directing all schools to return to in-person learning this year, and state school board members have endorsed the mask mandate as a necessary step to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and allow students to return to classrooms.
“That has been our North Star,” Crawford said. “Everything related to this topic has been around fulfilling that commitment.”
Supporters of the mask mandate told board members that they should wait until more children are vaccinated before considering lifting the mandate. Earlier this month, Maryland health officials authorized health providers across the state to begin scheduling vaccination appointments for an estimated 515,000 Maryland children ages 5 to 11.
According to Dr. Monique Soileau-Burke, vice president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 12% of Maryland children ages 5 to 11 have been vaccinated as of this week. Although the vaccine is now available to that age group, it may be difficult for children from certain socioeconomic groups to access the vaccine, Soileau-Burke told the board.
“It’s not universally available for everybody right now. It’s hard to find…it is difficult for everybody who wants a vaccine to get a vaccine,” Soileau-Burke said. “We do need to look at some issues with vaccine equity.”
The state board must decide whether the social and emotional costs of children wearing masks outweighs the public health gains of masks, said Larry Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. He acknowledged that wearing masks is an inconvenience, but said continuing the mask mandate is justified from a public health standpoint.
“As much as my heart yearns, kids have to wear masks, I would say that at this point, I would be cautious,” Gostin said. Masks are the second best protection after vaccines, he said. “We are moving in a transition toward living with this virus, but I think doing so too quickly is a mistake.”
Soileau-Burke said vaccination is the only “off ramp” from wearing masks. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro-mask person at school or an anti-mask person or a somewhere-in-the-middle person. The answer to getting our kids out of masks all together is to get vaccinated, period,” she said.
State officials in Massachusetts are allowing schools to lift their mask mandate if 80% of students and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19.
However, Dr. Lucy McBride, an internist, told board members that masks are not a “zero harm intervention,” contending that masks hamper children’s social and emotional development.
“Just because we can’t measure the harms [of wearing masks] as community transmission and death and hospitalization rates doesn’t mean they’re not there,” she said.
“There will always be children who are vulnerable,” McBride said. “I think we need to start thinking about — what risks are we willing to tolerate — because the virus is going to be woven into the fabric of our everyday existence.”
Gostin said he strongly disagrees with McBride, who also said there is no clear evidence that masks in schools reduce COVID-19 transmission rates.
“All of our public health agencies unanimously believe that masks are effective, I don’t think that’s even in question,” Gostin said.
Although studies on COVID-19 rates in schools have not been strong, “there’s no reason to believe that all of the wider, very robust studies don’t apply in schools,” Gostin said, adding that balancing mental and emotional costs of wearing masks is important to consider.
And some parents told board members that they worried about bullying if wearing masks became optional.
“There is already an increase in hate crimes in our communities — this will be a fuel to the fire,” said Jenni Kim, a mother of two children who lives in Frederick County.
“Optional masking will present a new problem — bullying — because masks have been so politicized,” echoed Heather Coley, the mother of a high school student in Harford County.
“They hear the awful things adults are saying to each other all the time. How can we expect children and adolescents to navigate this while learning, when we as adults can’t get it together?” she continued.
Some other parents argued that decisions on wearing masks in school should not be a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all pandemic. The masks and vaccine mandates take away our freedom to figure out what fits for our family,” said Jessica Garland, a mother of five boys in Carroll County public schools.