COVID-19 alert

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland State Board of Education approved an emergency measure Thursday requiring masks in schools for the new school year.

The board approved the statewide mask mask for students, teachers and staff at public schools. The measure goes to a Maryland General Assembly joint committee for final approval and implementation.

Most of Maryland’s local school districts have already approved mask mandates citing worries about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. That includes school systems in Queen Anne’s, Caroline, Kent and Talbot counties.

There were five local districts statewide that were not requiring students and staff to wear masks for the upcoming school year. Four of those — Dorchester, Cecil, Somerset and Worcester — are on the Eastern Shore. Carroll County is the fifth school district without a local mask order.

Susan Getty, a board member, said about half of the state’s students are not even eligible for a vaccine at this time because of their age, according to the Associated Press. 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.”

Advocates for mask orders welcomed the state education’s approval of a statewide requirement.

“A majority of the Maryland Senate called on the State Board of Education to promulgate emergency regulations to institute a statewide masking policy for schools and we applaud them for doing so this afternoon, said Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore. “The Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review (AELR) will work expeditiously to approve this emergency regulation..”

The state teachers union also welcomed the statewide mask order.

“Thank you to (the Maryland State Board of Education) for showing statewide leadership by passing emergency regulations for a mask mandate in schools. This helps us open our doors in a more healthy and safe manner for students, educators, and communities.,”said Cheryl Bost, president of Maryland State Education Association.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has not ordered or forbid localities and local school districts from imposing or not imposing mask requirements. School districts in Arizona, Florida and Texas have been battling GOP governors over mask and other COVID mandates.

Hogan lifted the state’s COVID mask order earlier in May when cases and hospitalizations were down.

The local mask mandates have prompted battles at school boards in Maryland and across the country — as well as protests. Parents opposed to new mask mandates have protested in Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties.

Dan Cox, a Republican state lawmaker running for governor in 2022, criticized the state school board decision. “This is a disturbing ruling. The Board of Education has zero constitutional powers of emergency or medical device powers,” Cox said.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic candidate for governor Tom Perez voiced support for the mask order. He also wants COVID vaccines mandated for teachers and employees.

“This is an important step forward in the fight against this virus, but the governor has to do more. We need to keep our kids and educators safe — and we need to keep them learning face-to-face. That’s why, in addition to this mask mandate, we need Governor Hogan to mandate vaccinations or regular testing for all school employees statewide, and show leadership by calling for supplemental paid family sick leave for our vaccinated front line education workers,” Perez said.

There have been upswings in COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations with concerns about the Delta variant in hotspots such as Florida and Texas.

The Maryland Department of Health reported 1,244 new COVID cases on Thursday and 720 current hospitalizations attributed to the virus. Those are from pandemic lows earlier this summer but still off peak levels seen in January, according to MDH.

Still, hospitals in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and other current hotspots report shortages of available beds for patients and some staffing shortages as the virus spikes again and some medical systems require COVID vaccines among workers.

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