Maryland local school boards will get say on mask policies

Maryland lawmakers voted in favor of a plan that returns control over mask policies in schools to local boards of education.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review (AELR), voted 17-1 to approve Tuesday’s decision by the State Board of Education to lift the mask mandate for schools.

The vote means that local school boards across the state have the authority to enact or rescind masking policies. The Maryland Board of Education vote was set to take effect March 1.

State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury repeated a statement he made earlier in the week, that if he had to do it again, he would have instituted the mask mandate for schools across the state. But given the current data on the coronavirus in Maryland, “The time is right” to lift the mask mandate. “We can’t mask our kids forever,” Choudhury said.

Thirteen people signed up to speak to the AELR committee members.

Among those testifying was Liliana Norkaitis, a senior at Fallston County High School in Harford County.

“When I graduate with my class in June,” Norkaitis said, “I want to be able to walk across the stage, mask-free, smiling.”

Next, Jennifer Weiner addressed the lawmakers, telling them she’s a mother of three. Unlike most of the speakers on Friday, she wanted to keep the mask mandate in place.

Weiner’s youngest daughter, who is 4 years old, sat by her side as she testified in the virtual hearing. “She’s the reason that I’m speaking today.”

Weiner remains concerned for her youngest child “because we still don’t have a vaccine for this age group.”

After the speakers finished, the committee members took a brief recess, and then came back to vote.

State Sen. Steve Hershey voted in favor of turning the decision on masks back to local school districts. “It is refreshing to see that the voice of the people still matters” he said, when the committee returned from recess to vote.

Del. Brooke Lierman also cast yes. “I certainly hope that our local school districts moving forward will be guided by public health,” adding that it’s refreshing to see things moving in the “right direction in Maryland.”

The lone no vote on the committee came from Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, who took exception to some parents’ characterization of imposing a mask mandate as “abuse.”

“When you have a child who’s traumatized and truly abused, don’t put it in the same category as wearing a mask to protect the child,” Sample-Hughes said.

After the vote, House Minority Leader Del. Jason Buckel and House Minority Whip Del. Haven Shoemaker, both of whom sit on the joint committee, issued a statement in support of rescinding the mask mandates.

“The final decision now lies with local jurisdictions, where it should have been all along,” they said.

Gov. Larry Hogan posted a tweet after the vote, calling the decision an “important victory for students and parents.”

School systems in Montgomery, Howard, Frederick and Anne Arundel counties had already qualified to lift their mask mandates under the previous state regulation.

Masks are optional in Anne Arundel and Frederick County public schools. On Thursday, Howard County’s school board voted to start a mask-optional policy starting March 1.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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