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Lawmakers approve statewide school mask mandate

Allison Shelley/Alliance for Excellent Education
An elementary school student wears a mask while on a school bus in October 2020. Credit: Allison Shelley/Alliance for Excellent Education, via Flickr

Masks are now required in all Maryland public schools, after a legislative committee voted Tuesday along party lines — Republicans opposed and Democrats in favor — to approve a statewide mask mandate proposed by the State Board of Education.

A public hearing on the issue focused heavily on Carroll County, one of two jurisdictions that lacked a local school mask mandate.

State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury defended the mandate, arguing that it aligns with prevailing science and prevents COVID-19 outbreaks from shutting down schools.

“Several places across the country that have failed to enact mask mandates, such as Georgia and South Carolina, which reopened several weeks ago, have closed entire school districts in some cases because of massive COVID outbreaks among school populations that returned to school unmasked,” he said.

However, Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the science behind the decision, including whether masks are effective at preventing the spread of the virus.

“It's my understanding that masks on a good day, maybe only filter out 10%, and there's no way that COVID could be stopped with the use of a mask,” said Del. Susan McComas, a Republican who represents Harford County. “I've heard that the masks, you know, collect the carbon dioxide, and don't really allow a lot of oxygen to be filtered through the mask.”

Both of McComas’ concerns have been debunked by numerous studies and health experts.

Other Republican lawmakers criticized the move as one that strips decision-making power from the local officials who voted against implementing mask mandates in their districts.

“It sets up a very slippery slope for the Maryland State Board of Education to undo local decisions about anything anytime they want,” said Del. Haven Shoemaker, a Republican who represents Carroll County.

That sentiment was also common among members of the public who testified against the mandate during the hearing.

Bryan Thompson, who said he has four children in Carroll County Public Schools, said the mandate takes away parents’ freedom to make their own decisions about masks for their children.

“The danger we face isn’t COVID, but it is our freedoms being relinquished under the guise of an emergency,” Thompson said.

Other opponents highlighted what they said were the negative effects of mask-wearing, including some not backed by science.

“It impacts breathing, causes anxiety and fear, impedes social/emotional development, and learning suffers,” said Donna Sivigny, a member of the Carroll County Board of Education.

Sivigny was one of several opponents who raised concerns about students having to wear masks for an entire school day without breaks. However, Choudhury told lawmakers that would not happen. Schools are encouraged to build outdoor mask breaks into their schedules, he said, and some, such as outdoor recess and lunch, are already part of the school day.

The other side of the debate included numerous concerns about children with health conditions that make it dangerous or even deadly for them to attend school if their classmates are unmasked.

Maureen Aversa, another Carroll County Public School parent, said her son has severe asthma. Carroll County doesn’t offer virtual learning, so he has to attend in person.

“If he does get COVID from an unmasked classmate, his chances are he'll have a really rough go at it,” Aversa said. “In his words, ‘I can't get COVID. I know what it's like to not be able to breathe.’”

Certain disabilities and medical conditions can make attending school with mask requirements crucial for students’ survival, said Megan Collins, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland. Schools without mask mandates have told students with these conditions that they cannot accommodate them.

“Requiring these children to instead receive minimal home and hospital instruction, generally, of no more than six hours a week instead of a full 30-hour week of in-person school, when with masking and social distancing they could attend school in-person, violates several federal laws,” Collins said.

Maria Clark told lawmakers that her son falls into this category because he has muscular dystrophy.

“Since the school system has refused to provide Michael with accommodations to safely attend school, he is currently on home-and-hospital instruction and will therefore receive only five hours total of education and therapies a week,” Clark said. “Carroll County Public Schools is taking a child who has many obstacles in life and giving him the very least they possibly can.”

Though the mandate is now in effect for 180 days, the State Board of Education plans to review COVID-19 data monthly to reevaluate the necessity of a statewide mask mandate, Choudhury said.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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