The Maryland State Board of Education voted on Wednesday to direct the State Department of Education to draft a new emergency regulation that would provide local school jurisdictions with “off-ramps” from mask wearing.
Shortly after the school year began for some districts, state lawmakers approved a universal mask mandate on Sept. 14, requiring all teachers, students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside public school buildings. This emergency regulation expires on Feb. 25, 2022 but can be lifted earlier, according to Board President Clarence Crawford.
Now, against a backdrop of COVID-19 vaccinations available for children 5 years and older, “it is time to think about off-ramps,” State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury told board members Wednesday. “We should update our [regulations] in a way that allows for an off-ramp for communities based on where they’re at.”
The board voted 12-2 to direct MSDE to draft a new masking policy and present it to board members, who will then vote on the new emergency regulation. The state board’s next meeting is on Dec. 7.
Choudhury did not specify what the off-ramps from the mask mandate could look like, but told board members to not simply reverse the current universal mask mandate. Instead, an optional mask policy should be reached depending on a local jurisdiction’s COVID metrics such as community transmission rates. For example, state officials in Massachusetts are allowing schools to lift their mask mandate if 80% of students and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19.
No school should have to close its doors because of COVID-19 and the length of quarantine should be minimized “because we’re never going to get back to normal if we don’t keep our schools open,” Choudhury said, reminding board members that Maryland was the third to last state in the country to reopen its schools. The overall goal is to make sure that students can safely learn in person with as little disruptions as possible, Crawford said.
Since the mask mandate, only one school in Carroll County has cancelled in-person learning due to a high number of positive COVID cases.
Board member Shawn Bartley, one of the two who voted against the motion, proposed an amendment that would allow the current statewide mask mandate to expire and preclude the new emergency regulation from taking effect if COVID transmission rates stayed the same.
But that amendment assumes that school systems are using the same protocol to measure COVID positivity rates, and that is not realistic, Choudhury contended. With 24 local school districts, case numbers are reported in 24 different ways, he said. Board members voted against the amendment in a 10-4 vote.
Asked about the Board of Education debate at a State House news conference Wednesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who appoints most of the board members, replied, “I don’t think we need to change the policy at this point.”
Last month, the board heard a range of opinions on masking policy in public schools from a slew of parents, teachers, county board members and health experts. Dr. Monique Soileau-Burke, vice president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the board that 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.
However, some board members cautioned against a policy that would mandate vaccines for children and encouraged using a combination of metrics such as community transmission rates and hospitalization rates along with vaccination rates to determine masking policies.
“I am not a supporter of wholesale vaccination for children,” said board member Vermelle Greene. “We don’t know…the long term effects [of the COVID vaccine] on these babies.”
“I don’t want us to necessarily be seen as going through a back door to mandate vaccines for children,” another member, Joan Mele-McCarthy echoed. If control over mask mandates is given back to local jurisdictions, the state should offer different off-ramps for communities that have different experiences, she continued.
But local control also comes with a level of responsibility and accountability, Crawford said.
It is unclear whether the new emergency regulation, if passed, would immediately replace the current statewide mask mandate or begin when the statewide mask mandate is set to end in February. The timeline will be proposed by MSDE in their drafted emergency regulation, Crawford said. And once board members see the new regulation, they can decide whether to enact the new masking plan immediately or wait until February, Crawford said.
Hogan addresses omicron variant
During his news conference, which took place as the school board was meeting, Hogan made his first public remarks about the omicron variant of COVID-19; the first documented case in the U.S. was reported Wednesday in California.
Hogan said Maryland is working to increase its capacity to track COVID-19 variants. The state “has one of the strongest variant surveillance systems in America” but will work to grow surveillance capacity in the face of the omicron variant, he said.
Hogan noted omicron is not the first variant of the virus and likely not the last.“I urge Marylanders not to panic,” he said. Hogan emphasized the availability of PCR tests and increased availability of rapid testing. He also encouraged Marylanders to get vaccinated, and if they’re eligible, to get a booster shot. In a news release Wednesday, Hogan announced Marylanders had received more than 1 million booster shots, bringing the total number of COVID-19 vaccines administered to well over 9 million. There have been 10,987 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Maryland and over 580,000 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, according to the Department of Health. Nearly 700 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maryland on Thursday morning, according to the most recent health department data. That same data shows the percent of positive tests averaged over seven days has been increasing recently, to 5.13%.
Josh Kurtz and Allison Mollenkamp of Capital News Service contributed to this report.