The Maryland State Board of Education will hold a meeting this afternoon to determine if students will be required to wear masks during the 2021-2022 academic year as the delta variant continues to drive the state’s COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates higher.
“I believe that having an in-school mask mandate is going to help us to meet our goal of having students stay in classrooms and minimize the disruption that will be caused by quarantines,” said Rachel McCusker, the teacher representative of the Maryland State Board of Education, at the end of a marathon meeting held Tuesday.
The board voted unanimously to meet at 3 p.m. today to discuss the matter further.
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudury said that he was looking to see if he had legal backing to deny school systems’ COVID-19 plans if they follow all of the State Department of Education and Department of Health recommendations except for universal masking.
“I have been very clear, all school systems should start the school year with masking,” Choudury said early during the eight-hour meeting Tuesday.
Thus far, each jurisdiction has been tasked with deciding its own school reopening plan, which must be approved by Choudury.
To assuage public concern, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) on Monday tweeted a map created by the Department of Legislative Services detailing masking and vaccine mandates by school district.
According to the map, which was last updated Tuesday, 14 of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions plan to require students to wear masks. On Wednesday night, Cecil County Superintendent of Schools Jeff Lawson announced that the school district would require masks for students and staff at the beginning of the school year.
State senators sent a letter Wednesday to the Maryland State Board of Education, imploring board members to issue an emergency regulation requiring a universal masking mandate for students and teachers across the state.
“Continuous in-person instruction this school year is critical, and we must protect students’ ability to learn with other children in school buildings statewide throughout the year,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said in a statement. “We urge the State Board of Education to promulgate a temporary emergency regulation mandating that all children, faculty, and staff wear masks in every Maryland elementary and secondary school and congregate setting with children in any county with a substantial or high rate of COVID-19 transmission, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Should the board decide to issue the masking requirement for students and staff across the state, the emergency regulation would need to be approved by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR). The committee is led by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City).
Because of its emergency status, the masking mandate would only be in effect for 180 days before its expiration.
With Cecil County now requiring masks, only four of Maryland’s 24 school systems have chosen to keep masking optional. Several of those jurisdictions have some of the state’s highest rates of COVID-19 transmission. And three of the four — Dorchester, Somerset, Worcester — are on the Eastern Shore.
Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), a candidate for governor in 2022, issued a statement Thursday morning saying he also favored a mask mandate for public schools.
“Like so many Marylanders, I’m greatly concerned about the surge of COVID-19 cases in our state and across the country,” he said in the statement. “This surge comes as families are preparing to send their kids back to school — with great uncertainty on how the Delta variant will impact the health and welfare of students, teachers and staff. The COVID infection rate among children is the highest it’s ever been.
“That’s why I support a statewide mask mandate for schools, mandatory vaccinations for school employees, and daily testing for school employees who have religious or health exemptions,” Franchot said. “Additionally, I call on the state to work with local governments and school systems to ensure that all eligible children, educators and staff have convenient access to vaccines. School systems must also provide parents with the flexibility to decide the mode of learning that’s best for their children, whether it’s in-person, hybrid or virtual.
“Our collective fight against this pandemic that has killed nearly 10,000 Marylanders and infected more than 489,000 of our friends and neighbors is far from over. When it comes to the health and welfare of our children, we can’t take enough precautions to ensure that they are able to safely learn,” he said. “What’s more, these necessary health precautions aren’t just for our students, but also for our educators and staff. They and their loved ones deserve the certainty of knowing they won’t be jeopardizing their health to do the job they love.”
Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) declared a state of emergency there Tuesday morning in an effort to help the county request and procure aid and resources from the state and federal government.
Per a Tuesday news release from Olszewski’s office, the Baltimore County Council will hold a voting session next week to determine if the county should remain under the state of emergency beyond August.
“While we’ve made undeniable progress in our fight against this deadly virus, the rapid emergence of the Delta variant has made it clear that we need access to every tool in our toolbox to be able to respond to it,” Olszewski said in a statement. “We remain committed to doing whatever is necessary to keep our residents as safe as possible and to ensure that when our children go back to school next week they can remain where they belong: inside the classroom.”
“We want to keep our kids in class and keep our schools open,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said in support of County Superintendent George Arlotto’s decision to mandate that students and teachers mask up. “That’s the reason that we have the mask requirement.”
Robert Mosier, chief communications officer for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said discussions regarding vaccine requirements for teachers are underway. Pittman issued a vaccine mandate for county employees earlier this month.
According to Anne Arundel Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the county has 55 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at Anne Arundel Medical Center and University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center. He also reported that six people died of COVID-19-related causes in Anne Arundel County in the past week — “the most deaths we’ve had in three months.”
Asked what it would take for him to institute a county-wide mask mandate, Pittman said that he would need to reinstate a local state of emergency, but he doesn’t have enough support from the County Council to do so.
“We don’t have the authorization,” Pittman said. “We had it under the governor’s emergency order and we had it under the county’s emergency declaration … but that we no longer have.”
Pittman said that, to reinstate the county’s state of emergency, five of seven Anne Arundel County councilmembers would have to support it. He said that three county council members “have opposed every mandate that we’ve put into effect.”
“So we don’t believe that we have the votes on the council to do that,” he said.
By Hannah Gaskill and Bruce DePuyt