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State Board of Education approves “off-ramp” masking regulation

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Credit: Allison Shelley/Alliance For Excellent Education/Flickr

The Maryland State Board of Education approved a new emergency regulation Tuesday that would allow schools to lift masking requirements based on local COVID-19 metrics.

To go into effect, the regulation would need approval from the state’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR). It would repeal and replace a statewide masking mandate that has been in place since the beginning of the year and was set to expire Feb. 25.

Masking will continue to be mandatory after that date under the new regulation, which is set to expire June 2023. But a school can stop masking if vaccination rates are at least 80% among either its eligible students and staff, or within the county the school is located in.

A school that doesn’t have those rates could still end masking if its county has 14 consecutive days of moderate or low transmission, based on CDC data.

The board’s decision follows a special session last week where members tasked the Department of Education with drafting an “off-ramp” approach to masking.

State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said his regulation is safer than immediately ending masking altogether, which he warned has led to more outbreaks and school closures in other states.

“This is gonna be felt for decades, the harm that has been done on learning,” Choudhury said. “Schools have to stay open. In person schooling has to stay open.”

Choudhury added that “off-ramp” masking already has been successful in Massachusetts, and that case rates have not gone back up in eligible schools.

“They are seeing people who are healthy and learning,” he said. “Students are excited to be able to lift this responsibly. And there are some kids still wearing the mask.”

While schools in Massachusetts require unvaccinated students to wear masks, Maryland’s regulation includes no such requirement.

The new regulation also provides indoor masking exemptions regardless of a school’s COVID-19 metrics. Those exempt include students “whose disability prevents them from wearing a face covering.” People are also allowed to remove their masks when communicating with someone who is hearing impaired. Several parents told the board in November that masking was especially difficult for children with special needs.

Choudhury said schools can also opt for their own “on-ramps” to return to masking. The new regulation does not provide statewide metrics for returning to masking.