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State Board of Education votes to end mask mandate

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State Schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury at Tuesday's meeting. Credit: Maryland State Board of Education Livestream

Maryland’s State Board of Education voted 12-2 Tuesday to end its statewide masking mandate.

The decision won’t go into effect, however, until the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review approves it. It’s not clear when the committee will take up the issue, but it likely will do so in about two weeks.

If approved, local school systems would have the authority to decide whether they want to keep masking. Schools have been under a statewide masking mandate since the beginning of the school year.

State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury expressed support for ending the mandate Tuesday. Choudhury pushed for the statewide mask mandate last year.

“If I were to go back, I’d do it again,” Choudhury said. “But the conditions are better. There's more testing. There's more vaccines.”

The vote, if approved, would also do away with ‘off-ramps’ that are part of the current mandate. Maryland’s off-ramps allow schools to 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.

Tuesday’s decision followed an hour of public comment. Many of the speakers were parents opposed to the mandate, including Ginger Picker, a mother of four.

“You’re doing so much more harm than good by taking away parents' fundamental rights to make the best decisions for their own children that affect our health, wellbeing and safety,” Picker said. “No one knows what's better for my child than I do…you have no idea all the damage you're doing and causing these children.”

Kenneth Kiler, a member of the Carroll County school board, said while masks had a place earlier in the pandemic, it’s time to stop mandating them.

“It's time we accept that COVID is here to stay, and we just need to get on with their lives,” Kiler said. “The best way to prevent COVID-19 and children who cannot be vaccinated is to surround them with vaccinated adults.”

According to data presented at Tuesday’s meeting, a little more than half of local school systems have teacher vaccination rates of at least 80%.

Some are lagging behind. Dorchester County, for example, last reported a teacher vaccination rate of 49%. Only five local school systems require teachers to get vaccinated.

Kiler added that people should be allowed to mask if they choose.

“We each have unique medical vulnerabilities, risk tolerances, and we're all adjusting to this,” he said.

Rachel McCusker, a teacher representative on the board, was one of the two board members who voted against ending the mandate.

“I understand where parents are coming from. I hear you,” McCusker said. “However, I also believe that I have a responsibility to be prudent. And I just feel like we're a couple of weeks too early.”

McCusker said the board should wait until more counties reach moderate transmission and the CDC updates its guidance on indoor masking. The CDC is expected to do so in the coming weeks.

“I am concerned we're going to lose children from the physical classrooms to either home and hospital teaching, or to a mass exodus to virtual programs,” McCusker said.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, a union representing more than 76,000 educators, urged the board not to lift the mandate and criticized Gov. Larry Hogan for pressuring the board to do so.

“The governor's recent use of his bully pulpit to take a sound public school health and safety tool and turn it into a political decision that increases divisiveness doesn't serve our students well,” Bost said.

She added that several counties are already reaching their off-ramps as planned, but that not all would be ready. Bost called for additional resources for students and teachers if the mandate were lifted.

“Students and families with higher levels of vulnerability to COVID should be provided increased virtual schooling options,” she said. “Educators must be provided with urgent paid house leave or alternative job placements if medically needed and paid COVID leave for all employees.”

She also called for districts to continue providing masking, testing and contact tracing.

Andre Riley, a spokesperson for Baltimore City Public Schools, wrote to WYPR that its current mask mandate is based on the latest guidance from local and state health experts.

“We will continue to rely on guidance from the Baltimore City Health Department and local health professionals as we consider any changes. The needs and desires of our students, staff, and families – as well as our COVID testing data - will also play a critical role in any decision,” Riley said.

Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statement Tuesday thanking the board for “heeding our call.”

“This is a major step for normalcy and the well-being of our students,” he said.

Hogan added that Maryland has the lowest COVID-19 metrics in the country.

The state’s COVID positivity rate dipped below 3% Tuesday for the first time since early November, according to state health data. The number of ICU patients – 107 – is also the lowest it’s been since August.