November 16, 2021
The Maryland State Board of Education on Tuesday heard a series of opinions from a large number of parents, teachers, county council members and health experts as they consider withdrawing the statewide mandate requiring masks to be worn in public school buildings, but board chairman Clarence Crawford said the panel will decide whether to stop or continue the mask mandate at its next meeting in December.
After more than four hours of testimony, the board of directors did not obtain a “miracle solution” response, Crawford said, but reminded board members of their ultimate goal of bringing children back to safe in-person learning with as little disruption as possible.
In August, the National Board of Education voted 14-1 to enact an emergency universal masking order for this academic year, and state lawmakers gave their final approval in September. The mandate requires all teachers, students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside school buildings. It expires on February 25, 2022 but can be lifted earlier, according to Crawford.
In April, the board passed a resolution ordering all schools to return to in-person learning this year, and state school board members approved the mask’s mandate as a necessary step to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and allow students to return to class. .
âThis has been our North Star,â Crawford said. âEverything related to this subject has been devoted to fulfilling this commitment. ”
Supporters of the mask mandate told board members they should wait until more children are vaccinated before considering lifting the mandate. Earlier this month, Maryland health officials allowed health care providers statewide to begin scheduling immunization appointments for about 515,000 Maryland children aged 5 to 11.
According to Dr. Monique Soileau-Burke, vice president of the Maryland section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 12% of Maryland children aged 5 to 11 were vaccinated this week. Although the vaccine is now available for this age group, it can be difficult for children of certain socio-economic groups to access the vaccine, Soileau-Burke told the board.
âIt’s not universally available to everyone right now. It’s hard to findâ¦ it’s hard for anyone who wants a vaccine to get a vaccine,â Soileau-Burke said. “We need to look at some vaccine equity issues.”
The state council must decide whether the social and emotional costs of children wearing masks outweigh the public health gains of the masks, said Larry Gostin, faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. He acknowledged that wearing masks is a downside, but said maintaining the mask mandate is justified from a public health perspective.
âAs much as my heart desires, children should wear masks, I would say at this point I would be careful,â Gostin said. Masks are the second best protection after vaccines, he said. “We are entering a transition to life with this virus, but I think doing it too quickly is a mistake.”
Soileau-Burke said vaccination is the only ârampâ to wearing masks. âIt doesn’t matter if you’re a pro-mask person in school or an anti-mask person or someone somewhere in the middle. The answer to getting our kids out of the masks all together is to get vaccinated, period,â a- she declared.
Massachusetts state officials allow schools to lift their mask mandates if 80% of students and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19.
However, internist Dr Lucy McBride told board members that masks are not a “safe intervention,” saying masks hinder children’s social and emotional development.
“Just because we can’t measure the damage [of wearing masks] because the rates of community transmission and death and hospitalization don’t mean they’re not there, âshe said.
âThere will always be vulnerable children,â McBride said. âI think we have to start thinking about – what risks are we willing to tolerate – because the virus is going to be woven into the fabric of our daily existence. ”
Gostin said he strongly disagreed with McBride, who also said there was no clear evidence that masks in schools were reducing rates of transmission of COVID-19.
âAll of our public health agencies unanimously believe that masks are effective, I don’t even think that’s in question,â Gostin said.
While studies of COVID-19 rates in schools have not been strong, “there is no reason to believe that not all larger and very strong studies apply in schools,” Gostin said, adding that balancing the mental and emotional costs of wearing masks is important to consider.
And some parents have told board members they are concerned about harassment if masks become optional.
âThere is already an increase in hate crimes in our communities – it will be fuel on the fire,â said Jenni Kim, a mother of two who lives in Frederick County.
“The optional masking will present a new problem – bullying – because masks have been so politicized,” echoed Heather Coley, the mother of a Harford County high school student.
âThey hear the horrible things adults say to each other all the time. How can we expect children and teens to navigate while learning when we as adults cannot hear each other? ” she continued.
Some other parents argued that decisions about wearing masks in school should not be a âone size fits allâ approach.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all pandemic. Masks and vaccines take away our freedom to determine what is right for our family,” said Jessica Garland, mother of five boys at Carroll County Public Schools.
For more stories from Maryland Matters, visit www.marylandmatters.org.