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State Board of Education Approves Plan that Could Allow Local Schools to Lift Mask Mandates

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The Maryland State Board of Education has approved a plan that would allow schools to lift a universal mask mandate if local vaccination rates are high or COVID-19 transmission rates are moderate or low. 

The policy supported by a majority of the board would allow the mask mandate to be lifted under any of three conditions: if 80 percent of staff and students are fully vaccinated, if 80 percent of the full county population is fully vaccinated or if county COVID-19 transmission rates are moderate.

Now it is up to the General Assembly’s Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) Committee, which is tasked with reviewing state agency regulations, to approve or reject the policy. 

The board passed the new emergency masking regulation in a 12-1 vote and, if AELR approves, it would go into effect when the current mandate expires on Feb. 25, or earlier if the state board lifts it before that date. As an emergency regulation, the new policy would be effective for 180 days.  

Board member Warner I. Sumpter cast the only vote against the new plan.

Universal masking has been required in Maryland schools since lawmakers approved the current policy in mid-September.

The new regulation would set a process for lifting local mask mandates under each scenario.

At schools where 80% of staff and students are fully vaccinated, a school official would have to verify and attest to that fact on a form which the official and the local school superintendent would sign and submit to the state superintendent.

In counties where 80% of the population is vaccinated, the county school board or “governing authority” of a public school that is not in the system can vote to lift the mask mandate at a public meeting.

And, if a county has had 14 consecutive days of “moderate to low” COVID-19 transmission rates, as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the county’s local school superintendent can lift the mask mandate. However, under the last option, schools would have to reinstate the mask mandate if COVID transmission rates climb back up to “substantial or higher” for two weeks in a row. 

According to state data, Howard County has the highest vaccination rate of 74 percent while Garrett County has the lowest vaccination rate of 42 percent. 

When the state school board voted on the emergency mask mandate in August, the AELR committee held a four hour virtual public hearing after two committee members called for a hearing. For this emergency regulation, so far, no AELR members have called for a hearing, said Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), Senate chair of the committee. 

“Our goal, especially with the first round of regulation back in September, is…to get kids safely back in classrooms, and we know that’s the best possible learning environment,” Elfreth said. 

The new emergency regulation has come when COVID-19 vaccinations are available to children as young as 5 years old, but while scientists are concerned, and still learning, about what threats are posed by the new omicron variant. 

“I am worried about the variant that we’re seeing,” Elfreth said, but since the regulation is set to begin at the end of February, “I’m glad that we have this little bit of time in between.” 

“I think everybody wants in-person learning and if vaccination rates keep going up and it’s safe to unmask, I think everyone wants that too,” Elfreth continued. “We just have to be really careful — we’re talking about lives here.” 

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