Students, socially distanced and masked, listen to the National Anthem, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and say a quick prayer before heading to class on Sept. 14, 2020 in Rockville, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Coronavirus case rates are falling fast, prompting officials in parts of D.C., Maryland and Virginia to remove indoor mask mandates even as public health officials warn that the pandemic is not over and another serious variant could emerge.

Government and school officials say thanks to vaccines and test availability, people should be able to resume normal activities without masks, an argument reinforced Friday as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased mitigation recommendations for most of the country under a framework that ranks the D.C. metro area as having low rates of community transmission.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks on Friday announced the county’s indoor mask mandate would end Monday, a day before D.C.'s is slated to lift. While Gov. Glenn Youngkin fueled divisions in Virginia when he made masking optional in schools, a Maryland legislative committee on Friday voted to allow local school districts to decide whether masks should be optional.

Lynn R. Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, cautioned that infection rates signal the end of the omicron surge, not the end of the pandemic.

“There are many days when I just want to will it to be over,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t tell you this is the last surge. We need to be focused on preparing for the next one. This tidal wave has washed over us and is receding. There could be another one coming.”

Infection rates have dropped dramatically since the peak of omicron, but the latest surge infected so many more people than any other time in the pandemic that current numbers are still many times higher than in previous surges.

“They’re lower but they’re still fairly high,” Goldman said. “So we’re at a time now when we still have a lot more transmission of covid than we’d like. … We’ve been through a massive surge that none of us ever predicted would ever happen.”

As of Friday, infection rates for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia were 10, 13 and 23 cases for every 100,000 residents, respectively. Though a few points lower, the recent rates are almost identical to those recorded in the first week of December as omicron began to spread.

Prince George’s County has 5.6 average daily cases per 100,000 residents, the lowest of any jurisdiction in Maryland and a data point that Alsobrooks said helped her decide to remove the mask mandate earlier than she initially planned.

“I have waited a very long time to say that it is safe for us to do this,” she said in a news conference Friday. “We are continuing to make every decision based on the safety of our residents.”

However, she said the pandemic is not over and noted how quickly the omicron variant spread as people thought they were seeing “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Youngkin’s Health Department fielded questions about science behind masks-optional policy

Masks in schools have become a flash point in recent weeks as school officials struggled in the face of political and legislative pressure. The D.C. public school system is an outlier in still requiring masks for children at school, even outdoors in places like the playground.

On the heels of the Maryland legislative committee decision Friday to give local school districts the authority to decide whether masks should be optional, State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said Howard, Frederick, and Anne Arundel counties’ schools have chosen to go that route. Others are likely to follow suit.

Prince George’s County Public Schools chief Monica Goldson said masks are still required indoors in schools, but students can remove them outdoors when participating in recess and spring sports.

In Virginia, a fierce battle over school masking has raged for the past month. Hours after Youngkin (R) took office in mid-January, he issued an executive order declaring parents statewide can decide whether their children wear masks at school. More than half of Virginia’s 131 school districts announced they would keep masks anyway and several school boards and parents filed lawsuits seeking to oppose or uphold Youngkin’s order.

But last week Youngkin, who promised on the campaign trail to end mask requirements in schools, signed a bill that makes masks optional in Virginia public schools by March 1. In response, even districts that resisted Youngkin’s mask-optional order said they will obey the new law.

That includes Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest in the state with 180,000 students, which joined a lawsuit alleging the mask-optional order infringed on school boards’ constitutional right to oversee their school systems.

“Please talk with your child before March 1 so they will be aware of your family’s preference for mask-wearing at school,” Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand said Friday in a message to parents. “Teachers and school staff will not treat students differently based on their choice.”

A Virginia poll this week found that 56 percent of voters believe school masking decisions should be based on health data and experts, while 41 percent think it should be left up to parents.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said governors in liberal-leaning states, such as New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon and California, have recently nixed state school masking requirements.

“The intense desire to move beyond these very unpleasant recent years is creating a lot of pressure to return to normalcy in advance of where some scientific opinion would suggest policy should be,” he said.

“Scientists are not generally elected officials, and elected officials get to make the decisions,” he said.

Nicole Asbury contributed to this report.