The Maryland State Board of Education voted Tuesday to lift its statewide school mask mandate and allow local school boards to adopt their own policies.
Board members voted 12-2 in favor of a measure that called for the mask mandate to be lifted by March 1. Before that can take effect, however, a joint legislative committee in Annapolis would have to approve of the measure.
State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury told the board that he felt “it is the right time” to return control over mask mandates to local school districts. But he made clear to the board that he felt the initial mask mandate — first declared as part of an emergency order — was the right call at the time.
“If I would go back, I would do it again,” he said, “because it did what it needed to do.”
State school board member Gail Bates agreed that the time was right for a change. “I think it’s time to get back to the locals doing what’s best for them” she said.
There were concerns, though, from several board members, including Joan Mele-McCarthy, who said she hoped that the local school boards would take time to help children adjust to feeling safe without masks, and to ensure that those who choose to wear masks are not teased.
The vote came after a number of parents called on the appointed board members to lift the mask requirement.
Darlene Persons, who described herself as a grandmother, was among those who traveled to Baltimore to speak to the board.
Persons held up a drawing she said one of her grandchildren made, showing a child holding up a mask, breathing a sigh of relief. Referring to the Maryland State Department of Education by its acronym, Persons told the board, “MSDE may think that these mask mandates don’t affect our kids in school, but they do in so many ways,” she said.
“Shame on all of you if you don’t end the mask mandate today.”
Kerry Dingle, the parent of a 4-year-old in daycare, agreed.
“Parents and kids need choice now,” he told the board. “Please change your guidance – including your early education center guidance – to state that masks should be optional for all young children.”
Adam Durand, the parent of a Montgomery County first grader and a 3-year-old, said he favored the mask mandate. “We want to be able to keep our kid in public school and keep him safe,” he said.
And the president of the Maryland State Education Association, Cheryl Bost, asked the board to keep the mask mandate in place for a while longer.
“The current regulations are working” she said, “and systems are reaching safe levels and off-ramps-as designed.”
Those “off-ramps” were first included as guidance to school districts by the board in December. Those included allowing local school districts to end their mask mandates if particular metrics — including vaccination rates of 80% in the surrounding county — were reached. Those guidelines would no longer apply if Tuesday’s vote is approved by state lawmakers.
Several parents argued that children are not at great risk from COVID-19.
Jaime Brennan of Frederick said children have “consistently been at the lowest risk” for the disease.
But in her presentation prior to the board’s vote, the state’s deputy secretary of health, Dr. Jinlene Chan, said Maryland has seen a higher number of children being hospitalized during the latest wave of COVID, “with over 200 hospitalizations among children in January alone.”
While Maryland could expect other variants of concern, Chan said, the state has “all the tools we need” to keep kids in school safely.
Board members Rachel McCusker and Holly Wilcox voted against lifting the mandate. Wilcox expressed concern about the latest COVID variant, and asked for another wait of 30 days.
“Maybe it would be more prudent to take that approach,” Wilcox said.
McCusker shared Wilcox’s concern. The new variant, McCusker said, ”may be a non-issue [or] it may raise cases again.”
Gov. Larry Hogan thanked the board after the vote.
I want to thank the State Board of Education for heeding our call to rescind its school mask policy. My full statement: pic.twitter.com/P0NrEMXgli
— Governor Larry Hogan (@GovLarryHogan) February 22, 2022
In response to the vote, Montgomery County Public Schools said in a statement that a decision about masks at schools will be reviewed and “made in the near future.” An update on the its COVID-19 mitigation strategies will be made during the school board’s business meeting on Thursday
WTOP’s Joslyn Chesson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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