Despite misgivings, Md. lawmakers approve ‘off ramps’ from school mask mandate

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

State lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to an emergency regulation passed by the State Board of Education that allows Maryland public schools to loosen mask-wearing requirements.

Under the new policy, schools can lift the mask mandate — which had been in effect since September — under any 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.

Proponents of the mask mandate contended that it was necessary to allow students to return to classrooms with as little disruption as possible, while opponents criticized the mask mandate for undermining local control and curtailing personal rights.

On Wednesday, the General Assembly’s Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) Committee, which is tasked with reviewing state agency regulations, voted 11-5 to approve the new emergency regulation passed by the state board in December. The regulation replaces a universal school mask mandate that was set to expire on Feb. 25, and details the exit strategies from the universal policy.

“We must plan ahead for the conditions in which a statewide face covering requirement is no longer appropriate,” state Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said during the committee meeting.

He acknowledged the soaring number of positive COVID cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant and underscored that the new regulation will still allow schools to continue mandating masks past February. If a school wanted to lift the mask mandate, the principal and superintendent would have to fill out an “attestation form” to the State Department of Education to confirm that the school had met the off-ramp conditions, Choudhury said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. But a few states such as Massachusetts have allowed schools exemptions from the state’s school mask mandate if they reach a high vaccination status among their students and staff.

But some lawmakers expressed concern about voting on masking “off ramps” against the backdrop of soaring COVID cases.

“Providing for these off ramps in the middle of omicron raging, when there is so much concern about going back to school is not perfectly timed,” said Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), who was among the Democratic lawmakers who voted in favor of the regulation. Republicans on the panel opposed it.

Clarence Crawford, president of the State Board of Education, said that the state board tried “to look as far into the future” as possible and come up with a flexible regulation. Mask mandates were never intended to last forever, and this emergency regulation provides a path forward for schools when COVID infection rates are low or when vaccination rates are high, school officials said. But it does not allow schools to lift the mask mandate during an “intense period like what we’re seeing right now,” Crawford said.

And the new regulation could encourage more Marylanders to get vaccinated, which is helpful in fighting the omicron variant, Choudhury said. “The timing may be right to incentivize people to get vaccinated, if the thing they’re most annoyed by with this is face covering,” he said.

The AELR committee has the ability to approve the emergency regulation as it was written by the board of education, but not to change its language.

Jeanna Butler, a parent who testified during the meeting, complained that the regulation was a “backdoor vaccine mandate.”

She said she thought the policies were “extremely misguided at best” and do not allow for true consent from students and school staff.

Del. Susan K. McComas (R-Harford) said coupling off ramps from the mask requirement to vaccination rates engenders an equity issue, since ethnically diverse parts of the state tend to have less access to vaccinations. Rather, it is better to keep mask mandate decisions as local as possible, as one solution does not fit all, she said.

Crawford highlighted that the state board did not want to disenfranchise communities that may not be able to reach a high vaccination rate and pointed to the third “off ramp” option, which allows schools to lift the mask mandate if the county’s community transmission rate is low to moderate for the past 14 days.

“We should not have 24 definitions of off-ramps in our state,” Choudhury said.

School officials remained stalwart in their goal to keep as many students learning in-person as possible.

“At the end of the day, my North Star is keeping schools open,” Choudhury said. “I’ve been very aggressive in that, and I will continue to be even though omicron.”

The superintendent said he does not plan to introduce another emergency regulation on mask mandates.

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