Maryland’s State Board of Education voted Thursday to mandate face masks in all public schools across the state as the delta variant raises concerns about children returning to the classroom in person.
With the vote, the state board chose to overrule the few local jurisdictions that as of this week had not mandated masks: Worcester, Somerset, Dorchester, Carroll and Cecil counties.
The regulation still must be approved by a joint committee in the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democratic lawmakers.
“As a board, we have said so many times that our goal is to get kids back to in-person instruction,” said Lori Morrow, a state board member from Prince George’s County.
“Universal masking is one of the things that we need in our schools to minimize the number of students who are going to be quarantined and sent home.”
The board voted in support of a mask requirement that can last up to 180 days, though State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said he expects the mandate will be re-assessed monthly.
The emergency regulation approved Thursday will require anyone entering a public school to wear a mask with a few exceptions. Masks do not need to be worn when children are eating or because of certain disabilities, for example.
Schools can also offer students outdoor mask breaks, Choudhury said.
Thursday’s special meeting came amid growing pressure from lawmakers to impose a mask mandate. Maryland Senate leaders called on the state board to require masks in all public schools in a letter Wednesday.
The letter asked the state board to require mask-wearing in any local jurisdiction that is experiencing either substantial or high rates of COVID-19 transmission. That currently includes every county in Maryland, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The emergency regulation must now be approved by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review. Senate President Bill Ferguson said the committee will “work expeditiously” to approve the regulation.
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, local school boards had developed their own plans for masking. Most of the state’s 24 jurisdictions planned to mandate masks.
Not all state board members agreed that a statewide mask mandate was the right choice. Gail Bates, a state board member from Howard County, said she preferred to keep power in the hands of local school boards.
“When I look at the (COVID-19 case) numbers they seem to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” Bates said. “I personally have a problem with one-size-fits-all.”
The mask mandate won out with only one vote against the regulation.
Kevin Bokoum, a student member of the board from Washington County, spoke in favor of the emergency regulation.
“Anything is better than having to go back online,” Bokoum said.
Madeleine O’Neill covers the Maryland State House and state issues for the USA TODAY Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @maddioneill.