Maryland education and health officials are “strongly recommending” — but not requiring — unvaccinated students wear masks when they return to in-person classes this fall, according to updated state guidance released Friday.
The long-awaited eight-page memo, which heavily leans on recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lays out how local districts should deal with testing, social distancing and contact tracing. Like the CDC, Maryland said the goal of safety practices is to “support opening for in-person learning at full capacity.”
The guidance, which bucks a recommendation this week by the nation’s leading association of pediatricians, comes as the debate intensifies among experts, parents, students and teachers over whether students need to wear masks inside schools when in-person learning resumes for the coming school year.
The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday said universal masking should be part of a “layered approach to make school safe for all students, teachers and staff.” It recommended that everyone over the age of 2 wear masks.
But this month, the CDC said vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks while in school buildings. However, it added that unvaccinated students and staff should still wear face coverings and that school districts should look to local virus trends to determine whether to ease or strengthen their measures.
In contrast to Maryland, Virginia took a more cautious approach. This week, the state’s health and education departments released guidelines urging all elementary school students, staff and teachers — whether vaccinated or not — to wear masks indoors this fall and asking that students, staff and teachers in middle and high school wear masks indoors if they are not fully vaccinated.
In Maryland, the guidance from state agencies appears to largely fall in line with Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent comments on masking.
Hogan (R) lifted the state’s mask mandate in mid-May after federal guidance suggested that people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus did not need to wear face coverings. At that time, the governor said schools were not among the locations where masks should be required and instead just stressed the need for eligible populations to get vaccinated.
On Friday, during an interview on “The Takeout” podcast on CBS News, Hogan said he did not see the need for K-12 students to wear masks.
“Because we got so many people vaccinated, because kids have not been a big problem for us the past year, I don’t think we have to require a mask for kids,” Hogan said.
Eric Toner, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that given the rise in new covid-19 cases, wearing a mask indoors would not only be “prudent,” but it would be appropriate for the governor to promote it — in schools and other indoor venues.
“It’s not harmful, and it does reduce transmission,” he said. “It seems to be a low-risk, low-cost way to reduce the number of cases in Maryland. I support what the American Academy of Pediatrics has said.”
In Montgomery County, the school board is expected to discuss the mask practices next week. In Prince George’s County, a spokeswoman said the 131,000-student system has not changed its practices of requiring masks in all schools and school system buildings.
In the District, Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said Thursday that D.C. Public Schools plans to require masks for all students, staff and visitors when the city returns to in-person learning in August.
But health officials said Friday that the school masking requirement could change in the coming weeks. “DC Health is currently evaluating the most recent CDC guidance and any implications for its guidance for district schools, and will issue updated guidance for schools in the near future,” said Patrick Ashley, the senior deputy director of emergency preparedness and response at the D.C. Department of Health, during a call with the D.C. Council on Friday.
In Maryland, Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said that as long as science and safety are foremost, the teachers union could possibly support a kind of “targeted” approach that would require masks for those who are unvaccinated but give others the choice. Much depends on case rates and the trajectory of the delta variant or other variants. “Health and safety is still our priority,” she said.
As local school and health officials decide the next steps, the masking debate among parents in some ways resembles the lengthy debate about reopening school buildings — with clashing views and intense opinions. But it also is riven with more nuanced views about differences according to vaccination status.
Doug Mintz, a parent in Bethesda, said he expects unvaccinated students will “almost certainly” be asked to wear masks in his school system, the state’s largest, with an enrollment of more than 161,000. But for older students — many of whom are vaccinated — he said he hopes there is no requirement, even if that takes some work to sort out who has shots and who does not.
Still, he said, “priority one should be opening schools five days a week, with full and normal schedules — and whatever it takes to get the doors open needs to be the focus.”
Sarah Taylor, a physician and mother of three who lives in Potomac, said her 13-year-old is vaccinated — and maintains she should not have to mask at school. Taylor agrees. “If you did the work, you should get the reward,” she said.
She wondered why local school districts can’t ask for proof of vaccination. “I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem,” she said.
Among children under 12, who can’t get shots yet, Taylor said, it’s a different picture. “The risk is low, but for unvaccinated kids, it is not zero,” she said. “I think they should mask indoors — but not outdoors. The risk outdoors is exceedingly low.” She added: “I know it’s not fun. I know they hate it, but until they are vaccinated, I think they should do it.”
Adding to the complexity is the rise of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.
For Gerrod Tyler, a father in Temple Hills, in Prince George’s County, with the state’s second-largest school system, the variant’s spread suggests caution is still needed.
“At least getting us through to the new year, I think schools should require masks,” he said.
Karina Elwood contributed to this report.