Potential change in Maryland school’s mask mandates

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SDHS classroom of students wearing masks.

Rowan Wilkins, Staff Writer

The Maryland State Board of Education is discussing when to lift mask mandates in public schools for the current school year.

The board met Dec. 1 to discuss procedures to discontinue face coverings based upon vaccination status and transmission rates. State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said he plans to keep the current emergency regulation in place through Feb. 15. He asked board members to work towards alternatives for the future and ways for systems to create an optional mask policy.

With conflicting views, vaccination rates, and populations of different counties considered, the board in August decided to create an emergency mandate in Maryland public schools, with included “off ramps” for future changes. This emergency regulation went into effect in September earlier this year. The news changed many counties’ plans for the 2021-22 school year.

Within this school year, Stephen Decatur High School has had multiple classified COVID-19 “outbreaks,” and the rates have fluctuated over the entire state since September.

Worcester County Public Schools officials expected to send students back to school with the idea of face coverings being optional, depending on their own comfort levels. It was also proposed with vaccination rates going up and many mandates being lifted.

Despite these plans, many residents expect the mask mandate to remain for the majority of the 2021-22 school year.

“I think the board will reevaluate, and we’ll stay where we are,” said Assistant Principal Trevor Hill, one of many who believe little change will come any time soon.

Board members were disinclined to let vaccination rates dictate decision making as well, with their own worries about effectiveness contributing.

Many viewed vaccinations as what would lead to the end of face-coverings and many other regulations, such as social distancing. Although, new COVID-19 strains and the possibility of still getting sick changed those visions.  In addition, not everyone can be vaccinated due to specific health concerns.

“It’s my hope that they take vaccination rates into consideration,” said Hill, noting that there is popular information that even with the vaccination, people can get the virus. “If you do get vaccinated, it’s typically less severe. It’s just another thing we’re doing to help the masses.”

The freedom these future “off ramps” provide is beneficial to counties on the same side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as Worcester county, whose mask approach differs greatly from those on the other side of the bridge.

On Worcester’s side of the bridge, face-coverings typically are only required in public schools and health care facilities. Most people tend to go without a mask, showing a quite lenient approach.

“Because most of the decision makers are on the side of the bridge where they are having a lot of mask wearing and strict regulations, I anticipate, we’ll be pretty much where we are now,” said Hill.

Over the bridge, it is rare that one can go anywhere without seeing everyone around them wearing masks. The conflicting norms within one state would sway board members one way or another, even though those regulations may not work for the different parts of Maryland. That is where the “off ramps” become beneficial.

Part of this “off ramps” plan focuses on lifting mandates after a certain amount of time with low covid rates.

“Hopefully, conversation will snowball into not having to wear masks,” said Hill.

At the end of the day, many are more concerned with keeping schools open than removing mask mandates. Though everyone agrees both would be nice, it will take time to phase into being able to keep rates low enough with face-coverings no longer required.

Changes are not going to be seen until after the holidays and likely even after the emergency mandate expires in February.