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The Maryland State Board of Education voted Tuesday to rescind an emergency regulation mandating the use of face masks in schools, sending the decision to state lawmakers for final approval.

Board members voted 12-2 to lift the statewide masking mandate by March 1, pending approval from the Maryland General Assembly’s administrative, executive and legislative review committee. Board members Holly Wilcox and Rachel McCusker voted against the measure.

The legislative committee will hold a virtual public hearing and vote on the mandate Friday at 2:30 p.m.

The board’s decision comes amid pressure from some lawmakers, educational leaders, parents, and others who have contested the necessity of masking in schools. Earlier in the month, Gov. Larry Hogan joined fellow Republicans in the state legislature, including the minority leaders in the Senate and House of Delegates, to call for an end to the mandate.

In a statement Tuesday, Hogan thanked the State Board of Education for “heeding our call to rescind its school mask policy.” The General Assembly now must act swiftly to ratify the decision, he said.

“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,” Hogan said in the statement.

State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury told board members ahead of the vote Tuesday that he too recommended the mandate be rolled back in favor of local control.

“[The mandate] did what it needed to do and it was the right decision,” he said. “I think it is the right time to return it to local control.”

Maryland’s school masking mandate has been in effect since the beginning of the school year. The state Board of Education updated the regulation in December to create “offramps” for the state’s 24 school systems to allow students to go without masks, a move that was later approved by state lawmakers.

Those offramps would have allowed schools to ease masking requirements if a county’s community spread of COVID-19 is moderate or if vaccination rates are above 80% in the school or the surrounding community. State officials clarified that guidance Tuesday to specify that the vaccination rate means among eligible populations — which does not count children under the age of 5.

In the month that the mandate’s offramps have been in effect, four county school systems — Anne Arundel, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery — have qualified to make masking optional. Anne Arundel recently reverted to an optional masking policy in school buildings.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking by all students ages 2 years and older as well as staff, teachers and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Federal health officials are expected to update guidance on indoor masking during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is unclear whether that will include changes to recommendations for schools, according to a report from EdWeek.

Meanwhile, representatives for the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents classroom teachers and other certificated school employees, called the board’s move away from masking “premature.”

“If it does go to local control, we hope local boards will use offramps as guidance and work with students and educators who can’t be in school without masks,” union president Cheryl Bost said.

Outside the state school board meeting held in a downtown Baltimore office building, parents and advocates held an anti-masking protest.

Frederick County mother Jaime Brennan, who has one child in public school and another in private, helped another organize a Feb. 17 protest against masking in schools outside of the State House in Annapolis.

″A lot of schools aren’t going to be able to meet these offramps, certainly not anytime soon, and we think it’s unfair that only some kids will be able to learn mask-free”.Jaime Brennan, Frederick County

Brennan, a leader for the grassroots group “Moms for Liberty,” described the issue as one of “parental choice” and said parents should have the right to decide whether their kids wear masks in classes. She brushed off safety concerns in areas with high transmission, claiming there’s “no data to support that,” and that “children have consistently been at the lowest risk” from the coronavirus.

But some parents like Montgomery County mom Stacy Durand are worried about the statewide mandate being lifted. When Durand learned of Hogan’s recent position on masking, she called the governor’s office repeatedly this month to make her frustration known.

“We’ve had all of this talk of learning loss,” she said referring to comments made by the governor. “If the goal is to keep kids in the classroom, I don’t understand why we would remove that safety measure.”

Durand’s 7-year-old became eligible in the fall to receive a COVID vaccine, but her 3-year-old is still too young. She kept her kids home during the ongoing omicron surge and found that her son has adjusted so well to wearing a mask, she has to remind him that he can take it off at home.

“[Children’s lives are] a big deal and not something I’m willing to play Russian roulette with” .Stacy Duran, Montgomery County

Meanwhile, local school systems and boards may face increased pressure should the legislature return the masking decision to them.

Baltimore City school system’s position is unchanged, said spokesman André Riley. The system will continue to rely on guidance from the city health department and local health professionals when considering any changes, he said.

Baltimore and Harford county representatives say their school boards plan to discuss the shifting masking policy at upcoming meetings. Howard County schools, which qualify to lift masking, according to the mandate, will continue with universal indoor masking for the time being.

“I am cautiously optimistic that the improvement in our metrics over the next two weeks may allow further relaxation of masking policies, including in schools,” Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman said.

Children infected with the virus are less likely to develop severe illness compared with adults, according to the CDC. Approximately 200 Maryland children were hospitalized with the virus in January, 75% of whom were not vaccinated, according to Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s deputy secretary for public health services.

Schools can use a combination of protective factors, including masking and physical distancing, to “minimize but never eliminate the risk” of the virus,” she told the State Board of Education members Tuesday.

Brennan, however, called the statewide policy’s offramps “arbitrary” and criticized remarks from the state superintendent that the vaccination rate offramp was intended to nudge families toward getting shots.

“I don’t need the government coercing anything on me or my children”.Jaime Brennan, Frederick County

She noted that many children are playing, participating in sports and doing other activities mask-less outside school, something she believes further undermines the logic or potential effectiveness of any mask mandate.

One parent group has filed a lawsuit challenging the statewide masking requirement. The Coalition of Maryland Parents, a limited liability company created this month that combined members of ReOpen Charles County and Baltimore County Parent and Student Coalition, filed the lawsuit in Somerset County Circuit Court after raising tens of thousands of dollars for legal fees in a week.

And Carroll County’s school board unanimously called this month for an end to the mask mandate in public schools and authorized legal counsel to file a petition in Carroll County Circuit Court seeking a declaratory judgment that the statewide rules are “contrary to Maryland law.”

Carroll school board president Kenneth Kiler was “very glad they made the right decision based on science as opposed to politics and union influence,” he said following the board vote.

Kiler attended the meeting in person and spoke during public comment, though he did so as an individual and not as a representative of the board.

”I got to think our lawsuit and the parent’s lawsuit put additional pressure on them, so I’m proud of Carroll County,” he said. “I think little old Carroll County had a big impact today.”

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