Democratic leaders in the General Assembly are chomping at the bit to give final approval to emergency regulations requiring masks in public schools.
But a joint committee of delegates and senators may not be able to take that vote until the middle of September for that vote unless Republican Gov. Larry Hogan waives a 10-day waiting period.
“We are prepared to hold a hearing immediately to approve masks in every school in Maryland starting on Monday,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore city and House co-chair of the Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee, which must approve any emergency regulation. “However, Maryland law requires a 10-day delay at a time when our kids cannot wait. We know masks save lives, especially for unvaccinated kids.”
The delay, some say, could also cause confusion among parents, students and teachers as classes resume in some counties on Monday.
“The one thing that everybody on all sides of this issue can agree on is we need to get the kids back to in-person learning,” said Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel and Senate co-chair of the committee. “That is the most important thing: getting back to a sense of normalcy and getting back some of that learning loss that was experienced for the last 18 months.”
Elfreth said the emergency regulations passed by the state school board provide “consistent, predictable policy across the state.”
“This is, unfortunately, a hyper political issue when it should really come down to how do we all keep kids safe and learning in the best environment we know and that’s in-person and in the classroom,” said Elfreth. “The only way to do that is to ensure universal masking. I’d love it if we could all take the politics out of this and think about the kids.”
Republicans who are lining up to oppose the policy say it encroaches on local authority.
“I have a problem with this usurpation of local control,” said Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-Carroll.
Shoemaker, who has requested the joint committee hold a public hearing, compared the mask issue to Gov. Larry Hogan’s attempt to impose a statewide mandate that prevented schools from opening until after Labor Day. Democrats who defeated that executive order said the move violated the control of local school boards.
“They (Democrats) only seem to use that notion of local control when it fits their purposes,” said Shoemaker. “That’s a fundamental concern that I have. We heard all about local control during the debate about starting schools after Labor Day. ”
More than half of the state’s 24 school systems will start the school year requiring students, teachers and staff to wear masks. Included in those 13 jurisdictions are so-called “Big Seven” — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties and Baltimore City.
Dorchester County requires unvaccinated students and teachers to wear masks. Allegany and Caroline Counties are strongly encouraging masks in schools.
Eight counties have no masking requirements.
Elfreth said comparisons of mask mandates and when to start school are not analogous.
“One is an economic argument,” she said, adding that mask use “is about keeping kids safe and making sure that we don’t have educators and kids exposed, sick and potentially losing their lives. It’s a very serious issue.”
Republicans hold just four seats on the joint committee and are unlikely to be able to stop the panel from approving the regulations.
“There’s no question about that,” said Shoemaker. “I think at the very least we need to allow people, as we have in the past, to weigh in and have their say in a transparent and public way. We also ought to have the ability to ask some pretty probative questions about the danger that this rises to as to setting a precedent.”
The state school board Thursday passed emergency regulations requiring all teachers, students and staff to wear masks in classrooms and other school buildings. The rules remain in place for 180 days.
The state board will get monthly updates on the pandemic and mask use. The board could vote to rescind the policy early. It would also be required to vote to extend the policy beyond the initial six months.
The Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, must approve emergency policy before it can take effect. By law, the legislature must wait 10 business days to hold that hearing unless Hogan agrees to waive the delay.
The clock on that delay begins running Monday. Unless Hogan agrees to a waiver, a hearing and vote could not happen before Sept. 14.
Shoemaker said he did not believe Hogan should waive the waiting period.
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats are likely to push Hogan for the waiver. Some Republicans agree time is of the essence.
“This is something that I think everyone is waiting for,” said Sen. Steve Hershey, R-Upper Shore. “Schools are getting started. We probably should be in a position to have the hearing as quickly as possible.”
But Hershey said he questions the regulations and how the policy will be enforced and even what masks would be deemed acceptable.
“These are big questions,” he said.