School masks

The Maryland State Board of Education voted Thursday for an emergency regulation to require children and adults to wear masks in K-12 schools statewide to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

While most of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions already have mandated masks in schools, five counties have not —- Carroll, Cecil, Dorchester, Somerset and Worcester counties. The 14-member board’s vote was 11-1 for the regulation, with two board members absent.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal mask-wearing for teachers and students inside school buildings this fall, citing the rapid spread of the delta variant. Most states allow school districts to set their own mask policies. Maryland would join California, Illinois and Louisiana in deciding to require masks for students and teachers statewide, if a state legislative committee gives final approval.

Susan Getty, a board member, noted that about half of the state’s students are not even eligible for a vaccine at this time because of their age. People 12 and over are eligible to be vaccinated. Getty said mandating mask-wearing is an additional strategy to protect students, especially against the highly contagious delta variant.

“The CDC, as of today, has designated all counties in Maryland as high- or substantially-high risk. No one is in the low category,” Getty said. “Because of this and the 80,000 cases of COVID already with children under age 19, I fully support this mask mandate at this time.”

The mandate still will require the approval of the Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review. The regulation could take effect 10 days after it is received by the committee. It would be effective for 180 days to meet exigent circumstances.

On Wednesday, a coalition of 32 of Maryland’s 47 state senators sent a letter to the board’s leadership, urging them to approve emergency masking in schools.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, commended the board’s vote. He said the joint legislative committee “will work expeditiously to approve this emergency regulation.” Ferguson also thanked State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury for his leadership.

“His voice was a critical component in today’s decision to do what is in the best interest of students, families, teachers, and staff,” Ferguson said in a statement.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones described the board’s action as a “common sense vote to protect our children.”

“The AELR Committee will vote to approve this regulation,” Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said in a statement.

Jones also urged Gov. Larry Hogan to use his authority to put the mandate in place right away to avoid the 10-day wait period.

“Our children can’t wait,” she said.

Hogan, a Republican, has said he’s leaving the decision up to local boards.

“While the governor has been very clear that he believes local decision makers are best qualified to make these decisions, this policy is in line with current state and federal health guidance and the board has the legal authority to take this action,” said Kata Hall, a spokeswoman for Hogan. “The governor’s top priority is getting our children back into classrooms for in-person instruction.”

The vote comes as Maryland has seen a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The state reported an increase of 1,244 confirmed cases over a 24-hour period on Thursday. Also on Thursday, hospitalizations reached 720, after having dipped below 100 on July 2.