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Maryland board approves mask requirement for public schools

Public school students in Maryland will be required to wear masks when they return to class this fall.

The mandate overwhelming approved as part of an emergency regulation by the Maryland State Board of Education Thursday requires the use of masks.

Only one member of the 14-person board, Republican former Sen. Gail Bates, voted against the proposal. Bates joined other members of the state board who emphasized the importance of returning children to in-person instruction.

“That is not my concern over this particular resolution,” Bates said. “The concern I have is that right now the local jurisdictions already have the ability to do this. If the numbers in a jurisdiction are such that it would be better for the students to be there with masks on, then the locals can do that without this. This is a one-size-fits-all approach.”

But Lori Morrow, a board member from Prince George’s County, said, “Universal masking is one of the things we need in all of our schools to minimize the number of students who will be quarantined and sent home. We know there will still be cases. Vaccination is going to be important also.”

Under the mandate, all local public school systems will be required to implement a policy for the coming academic year that requires masks in all school buildings and enclosed structures. The mandate includes the use of masks on buses, which is also required under CDC rules.

The Centers for Disease Control currently recommends universal masking in school buildings for all teachers, students and staff regardless of vaccination status.

Additionally, the agency recommends mask use in all indoor public spaces in local jurisdictions where there is a substantial or high transmission of coronavirus. Currently all 24 major political subdivisions in Maryland fall within those mask recommendations.

But a number of board members said local school boards are not looking at the rate of transmission within their counties. 

“I don’t come to this decision lightly,” said Clarence Crawford, president of the board and a Prince George’s County resident. “My preference would be to defer to local authorities, but with that deference I am a strong believer in accountability. You don’t just make decisions and there’s no accountability.”

The rule passed by the state board does not allow school systems to ease mask requirements if their jurisdiction drops below the thresholds for transmission.

The state board is expected to receive monthly updates during the school year on the virus and use of masks.

The vote is unlikely to lower the temperature of the ongoing political debate over mask use. Boards in more rural areas of the state, which are more Republican, are typically less accepting of mask mandates than urban areas of the state.

“This shouldn’t be a partisan decision today,” said Morrow. “This is not just about one county. This really needs to be a united community effort across the state to keep out kids in school. That’s the goal.”

The emergency regulations are expected to last no more than the current school year. The board would need to vote again to extend them. The board could also vote to end the policy early if conditions change.

“This is a hard one for me because having been on a local board I really believe in local control,” said Brig. Gen. Warner Sumpter, a board member from Somerset County.

Sumpter and others said virtual learning helped some students but most did not do well outside the classroom.

“I’ve looked at the numbers from last year and we’ve said we want kids in school and we need to do that. The children who went through this last year, no matter what we do and we’re going to do a lot to bring them up to speed, they’re never going to get everything back that they should have gotten in that period of their life,” said Sumpter.