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State Board of Education to re-evaluate masking mandate

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The State Board of Education met to vote on the masking mandate in late August. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

Maryland’s State Board of Education heard from parents across the state Tuesday on whether to continue the statewide masking mandate for public schools.

Kristen Caminiti, a mother of four in Anne Arundel County, said masking protected her sixth grader when he was exposed to a classmate with COVID. Her son is also vaccinated.

“Now is not the time to change our protocols around masks,” Caminiti said. “While many people continue to resist vaccination — the only way out of this pandemic — it is not time to relax our efforts to mitigate the spread of this disease.”

Jared DeCoste, a father of two, said there are at least four COVID-19 cases in his first grader’s classroom, and that an additional 10 to 12 students have had to quarantine for nearly two weeks.

“If we unmask students during heightened rates of transmission, this will become more common, severely disrupting learning for these students,” DeCoste said.

Others called the mandate an “abuse of power” by the state board, and argued that the decision should be left to local school boards.

Benjamin Heiser said masking can be stressful for children with special needs. Heiser said his youngest daughter relies on facial cues to communicate.

“Because she can't see the teacher’s face, she's learning by tone,” he said. “As I speak to my daughter, she will interpret the tone as something maybe bad, and she'll start crying and say that she's sorry.”

Heiser said he’s opposed to a mandate, but that if it must continue, the state should issue a protocol for mask hygiene, including more specific guidance on what kind of masks to wear, how to wash them and how often you should change them.

The mask mandate, which has been in place since the beginning of the school year, is set to expire on Feb. 25.

But the board may reevaluate that end date, as 5 to 11 year olds are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Local school systems are also reporting fewer cases than they were in October, according to the state department of education.

Parents in support of the mandate urged the board to wait until the majority of students get vaccinated, citing evidence that masks help prevent transmission of COVID.

They also warned that transmission rates could go up again with the upcoming holidays.

Rene Averitt-Sanzone, the executive director of The Parents’ Place of Maryland, a nonprofit that serves children with disabilities and special health care needs, said that until vaccines are more widespread, masks are an important tool.

But she agreed that some children with disabilities or special needs may need more flexibility. In that case, Averitt-Sanzone said, individualized education programs can help.

“if a child has a great deal of difficulty wearing a mask or being able to access their education, or for whatever reason, that is a conversation that needs to happen within the context of that child's individualized education program,” Averitt-Sanzone said.

Veronica Golden, a K to 5 arts teacher in Charles County, said she is worried about her three year old, who can’t get vaccinated for COVID yet. Masking, Golden said, reduces her risk of bringing COVID home.

“I understand that they're uncomfortable. I understand that it causes anxiety, but they are necessary at this time,” Golden said. “We have seen what happens when we have removed the masks too soon.”

Health experts at Tuesday’s meeting also seemed divided on the importance of masking. Dr. Lucy McBride, an internist from Washington D.C., said that a mask is “probably helping” if a child with COVID wearing a mask “coughs in an unmasked child’s face.”

But she said masks may be taking an “emotional toll,” and that rapid tests could be keeping sick students from getting to the classroom in the first place.

“We need to finally recognize that the health and well being of our children is not simply the absence of COVID-19,” she said.

McBride argued that there is not enough evidence that masks are effective in reducing transmission within a given school, saying vaccinations and the broader community’s transmission rates might have a role when rates go down.

Professor Larry Gostin, a director at the O’Neil Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, “respectfully, but strongly,” disagreed.

“All of our public health agencies unanimously believe that masks are effective,’ he said. “I don't think that's even in question, whether they’re effective.”

The CDC recommends universal masking for all students two and older, regardless of vaccination status.

As divided as parents were Tuesday over the mandate, they had some common ground: keeping their children in the classroom.

“It is imperative that we put the safety of kids first,” Golden said. “They are our future, and without them, what are we going to do?”

Board members are set to reconvene in early December to make a final decision on whether or not to keep the mask mandate in place.