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Maryland board votes to let local schools decide on masks

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland State Board of Education voted Tuesday to allow local school districts to decide whether students must wear face coverings in school, sending the proposal to end an emergency order to a legislative committee to make a final decision.

Citing improvements in COVID-19 health metrics, the board voted 12-2 to rescind the order on March 1. Still, the Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review has the last say on the matter.

The committee has scheduled a virtual hearing and vote on the request for Friday, the panel’s co-chairs, Sen. Sarah Elfreth and Del. Samuel Rosenberg, said in a joint statement.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who has been urging the board to end the policy, called on the panel to move swiftly.

“This action aligns with the data and the science, the recommendation of the State Superintendent of Schools, and the guidance of medical professionals across the country,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

Maryland State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury cited improved health conditions, higher vaccination rates and the availability of more rapid virus tests during the board’s meeting.

“As the health data is continuing to show improvement we are now at a point where we can restore the authority for these decisions to our local jurisdictions,” said Charles Dashiell, the board’s vice president, who moved for the change. “Given the improving health metrics, it is appropriate for the local boards of education to make the decisions which they feel are in the best interest of the students they serve in providing them a safe in-person learning environment.”

Under the current policy, local school systems can decide to end the mask requirement if the spread of COVID-19 is moderate or low for 14 days in a row or if vaccination rates are higher than 80% in the school or community. That policy was adopted by the state board in December and enacted by the AELR committee early this year.

Anne Arundel County, which met the criteria, already has voted to lift its mask mandate to make them optional in schools.

Before the vote, parents testified at the board meeting about the difficulties and challenges their children have had with the mask requirements.

“Our children desperately need a return to normalcy,” said Kelly McMillan, a mother of three.

Rachel McCusker, one of the board members who voted against the proposal, acknowledged the difficulties parents and students have endured but she said she believed it would be better to wait for a couple of weeks and further guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is not the easiest thing in the world, 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, and that in a couple of more weeks we would know for sure that we’re going to stay down,” McCusker said.

Several other states have announced plans to lift statewide mask requirements in schools, citing the easing of COVID-19’s omicron surge, including Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon.

Brian Witte reports for The Associated Press.