Starting next Tuesday, Maryland public schools can shift to a mask optional policy, after state lawmakers on Friday approved the state Board of Education’s decision to rescind the emergency statewide mask mandate. Decisions on face masking requirements will now be up to local school systems.
The approval by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review comes after the State Board of Education voted 12-2 earlier this week to lift the emergency regulation mandating the use of face masks in school buildings.
Under state law, the board’s decision to rescind the emergency regulation could not go into effect until approved by the state regulation review committee, which is co-chaired by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City).
The vote was 17-1, with Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore) voting against the decision. Elfreth and Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) encouraged local school systems to make decisions based on the best public health data.
Del Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) reminded his colleagues that school districts that choose to continue with the current masking policy are aligned with the committee’s vote on Friday. “They are being allowed by this regulation to do what they feel is best and we are supporting them in that effort,” he said.
Before the vote, State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury reaffirmed his support for rescinding the statewide mask mandate in schools and returning that decision to local school boards. State Board President Clarence Crawford cited improved coronavirus health metrics, high vaccination rates and higher availability of rapid COVID-19 tests as reasons for their decision.
“The face covering requirement helped keep all of our schools open throughout the fall, as many schools and entire districts closed around the country,” Choudhury said. However, “the time has come to return to local leaders.”
The decision to lift masking requirements in school buildings went immediately into effect once the vote was taken at 3:45 p.m. on Friday, which means that Maryland will join the handful of states that are planning to lift their mask requirements in schools as early as next week — including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island.
This move came after a virtual public hearing, during which most parents lambasted the need for face masks in schools, contending that it has led to worsened mental health and that parents, not state officials, should decide whether their child needs to wear a mask.
Jennifer Stonesifer told the committee that not all children adapt well to mask wearing, particularly students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She argued that it is not fair to only consider immunocompromised students, but also those who have disorders that make mask wearing difficult for learning. “We need to consider all of the children, not some of the children,” she said.
But Megan Jones, an attorney for Disabilities Rights Maryland, argued that rescinding the mask mandate would discriminate against students with disabilities, many of whom do not have accessible virtual options. Rescinding the mask mandate “will create an unsafe environment for many Maryland students and will exclude some students with disabilities from attending school,” she said.
Since the beginning of the school year, Maryland has required everyone in public school buildings to wear face masks, but recently included “off-ramps” for school systems to lift masking requirements under specific health metrics during the omicron surge.
Under the current emergency regulation, which will end on March 1, local school systems are allowed to lift masking rules only if they meet at least one of three conditions: if 80% of staff and students are fully vaccinated, if 80% of the full county population is fully vaccinated or if a county’s COVID-19 transmission rates are low or moderate for 14 consecutive days, as reported by the CDC.
Anne Arundel, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery school districts have reached these metrics and are eligible to lift their mask mandates, Choudhury said earlier this week. Anne Arundel, Frederick and Howard school districts recently switched to a mask optional policy.
Starting next week, these “off-ramps” will turn into guidance for the local school system as they adopt their own rules requiring masks.
This move also comes after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Republican lawmakers urged the state board to lift its mask mandate and its “off-ramps” earlier this month, citing improved COVID-19 health metrics and high vaccination rates.
As of Feb. 25, the 7-day coronavirus positivity rate is 2.78% and hospitals are treating 459 patients who have tested positive for the virus. Around three-quarters of the state population are fully vaccinated.
On Friday, during the AELR committee meeting, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance that drops its recommendation of universal masking in schools. The CDC had previously recommended universal masking in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status or level of community transmission.
But this move does not rule out future emergency regulations requiring masks. Crawford, the state school board president, said earlier this week that another COVID-19 surge could qualify as a new emergency and move the board to pass another emergency regulation based on new circumstances. The state board will continue to receive monthly updates on the spread of the coronavirus, Crawford said.