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Maryland education board votes to lift statewide mask mandate, return decision to local school systems

First-grade teacher Keyana Gardner teaches at Glenmount Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore in November. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/AP)
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The Maryland State Board of Education voted Tuesday to rescind its statewide mask mandate and allow local school systems to set mask policies for their schools.

A state legislative committee must approve the decision before it takes effect, but the vote was cheered by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has pushed for the board to rescind its mandate.

“At a time when Maryland has the lowest COVID-19 metrics in the country, this is a major step for normalcy and the well-being of our students,” Hogan said in a statement on Twitter.

No timeline was given for when the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review — a panel of senators and delegates who review proposed state agency regulations — would vote on the board’s decision. Hogan encouraged the General Assembly to “act swiftly.”

State Schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury recommended local control for masking decisions before the board voted 12 to 2 for the change.

“We have a very smart response. We have very smart off-ramps. Let them [school systems] decide if they want to come up and use one of the off-ramps,” Choudhury said during Tuesday’s board meeting. “The conditions are better. There’s more testing, there’s more vaccines that are available.”

Maryland has a lower seven-day average coronavirus case rate than the United States overall, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, although new daily reported cases rose 18 percent over the past week. During that time, daily reported deaths fell 27 percent in the state, and covid-19-related hospitalizations fell 14 percent.

Choudhury’s recommendation came as states across the country have repealed their mask requirement in schools, some leaving the decisions with local districts. In the D.C. region, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington announced a revised policy last week that would make masks optional for some Maryland schools where there are no mask mandates from local government leaders. Virginia lawmakers last week passed legislation, which was immediately signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), making masks optional for students in the state beginning March 1.

D.C. Public Schools have remained steadfast in keeping students in masks. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has previously said schools would not be the first place where virus restrictions would “dial back down.”

The Maryland education board’s current mask mandate includes off-ramps allowing schools to lift the masking requirement if a county reaches at least an 80 percent vaccination rate, if 80 percent of the school staff and students in a building are vaccinated, or if the county has had 14 days with moderate or low transmission of coronavirus infections. Choudhury said school systems could still use these metrics as a guide if they choose to lift the masking requirement.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to lift its masking requirement last week after it met the state school board’s regulations with 80 percent of the county’s residents vaccinated against covid-19.

Melissa Idleman, a parent of two children enrolled in Anne Arundel schools, told the state board Tuesday ahead of the vote that she was proud of her local jurisdiction for making the decision but upset about the process it took to get there. The mask mandate’s off-ramps forced coronavirus vaccine on parents and children, she said to the board, which is why it needed to be rescinded.

“The simple reality is you’re not going to force people to do what they just don’t feel comfortable doing, although you sure are putting a valid effort in doing that,” Idleman said.

Board vice president Charles R. Dashiell Jr. — who made the initial motion to rescind the mask mandate — said that the previous decisions made by the state school board “had carefully considered the science and health metrics.”

“As the health data is continuing to show improvement, we are now at a point where we can restore the authority for these decisions to our local jurisdictions,” Dashiell said.

Before the vote, dozens of demonstrators could be heard outside the Maryland State Department of Education’s building calling for the mask mandate to be repealed with chants of “Our children, our choice.”

Two school board members wanted to keep the mask mandate in place for a few more weeks, given that data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that only Prince George’s County in Maryland had moderate transmission levels of the coronavirus as of Monday. Other jurisdictions either had substantial or high transmission, which means they had a positivity rate of at least 8 percent.

“It would give us time to see what’s going on with this new variant, BA.2,” Board member Holly C. Wilcox said. “It’s just another 30 days or so, so maybe it would be more prudent to take that approach.”

Lori Morrow, the parent representative on the state board, pointed to those high transmission rates in many of Maryland’s counties ahead of the vote and said that she was hopeful those jurisdictions would take measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“If we still have high transmissions in areas, there still needs to be those mitigation measures in place … so whether that’s using masks in public, getting vaccinated, it’s really on everybody in the community to make this go away,” Morrow said.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — said she was hopeful that local boards of education would continue to use public health metrics as a guide before making decisions to remove a mask requirement. The previous off-ramps were working for schools across the state, she said. She added that there are students and teachers with health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus, and some wouldn’t be able to be at schools in-person without a mask requirement.

“Health and safety still has to be our priority,” Bost said.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.