Members of the state board of education have a great deal to think about over the coming weeks.
For nearly four and a half hours Tuesday, in a busy virtual Zoom session, the group that passed an emergency order requiring everyone in school buildings to mask up indoors without exception listened to testimony on all sides of the controversial issue. The meeting was their first time publicly reviewing the order since passing it almost unanimously in late August.
And in the name of “science” and all the evidence every speaker could find, district representatives from across the state and a panel of doctors and health officials made adamant points both for and against the mandate ahead of a board meeting set next month to revisit it.
The arguments for and against the mandate were all over the board, from pleas to keep the mandate in place to protect not only the vulnerable students, but their parents and grandparents and everyone they’ve ever known from covid transmission, to claiming child abuse and mental and emotional distress from unfair and unjust “muzzling.”
“We were hoping to get a cross-section of views and opinions,” Board President Clarence Crawford said at the end of the hearing. “I was disappointed we didn’t get a silver bullet … But we have a lot of good information to think about.”
Crawford and all but one member of the board bypassed the advice of Gov. Larry Hogan and passed the emergency order on Aug. 26. The decision, which was voted into law weeks later by a General Assembly committee, prompted officials in Worcester County Public Schools to flip original plans to start the school year mask-optional. Local officials have said that they will not revisit the mandate themselves while the state order is in place.
Crawford said Tuesday that the emergency order ends Feb. 25 and cannot be extended or reissued, thus board members have to decide how to proceed.
“We need to assess how it’s going and then begin to think through a thoughtful and prudent way forward. What do we do?,” he said of the reason behind Tuesday’s hearing.
The groups represented at the hearing included members of the public, who testified nine to seven against keeping the mandate in place; parent and student groups; county school districts and state education organizations; and national health professionals and officials.
Testimony from the educational groups leaned toward keeping the mandate. Several speakers pointed out that the pandemic is far from over and that transmission is evident among children across the country. They also said that most children have no problem wearing a mask and claimed that schools have remained open because masks have been required.
Those against keeping the mandate testified that the decision should be left to the local jurisdictions, and claimed that children do not contract or transmit the virus at the same rate as adults.
The health officials had varying testimony as well.
Dr. Lucy McBride, a practicing internist from Washington D.C. who has studied the effects of covid since its inception, said that masks were the clear answer for preventing the spread of the virus at the start of the pandemic. But now that a vaccine and advanced testing are available, and more science exists regarding transmission rates among children, her advice has changed.
“Now that we have these vaccines that not only reduce the risk of disease in the vaccine recipient, but that also reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to someone else, it’s really time to think about removing a medical intervention whose benefits are not clear and that does have harm,” she said. “Masks are not a zero risk intervention.”
McBride pointed out that no real evidence exists that show the benefits of masking outweigh the negative effects on children, which include mental and emotional distress from not having the ability to see and hear teachers and peers.
“We need to recognize these are not risk-free interventions,” she said. “Students need to see faces to learn and for social and emotional health.”
The U.S. World Health Organization also does not recommend mask wearing for children under 5 at all, and routinely advises against it for those between the ages of 6 and 11, McBride added.
“In the U.S. we are really an outlier in masking children of these age categories,” she said.
Dr. Monique Soileau-Burke, the vice president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, had a more tentative take on moving away from masking.
While she agreed that the vaccine will eventually allow officials to stop requiring masks for students and staff in schools, she believes it is still too soon.
“I really, truly strongly believe the American Academy of Pediatrics will recommend that masks remain in place in classrooms until everyone has the opportunity to become vaccinated,” she said.
She added that she does not believe it will be as simple as waiting a few weeks after the shot is available to all age groups, as it is not universally available to everyone at the moment and getting to that point could take time.
Professor Larry Gostin from the O’Neil Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, disagreed with unmasking children at this time.
While he said that he did not have specific evidence from schools stating that masks are effective at preventing covid transmission in children, he referenced general studies of transmission in other scenarios that show their success.
“We have no evidence that taking off masks in the school system now would be safe,” he said. “And so as much as my heart yearns for the little kids that have to wear masks I would say that at this point I would be cautious.”
All three of the health officials did have one thing in common, though: They all believe vaccines are the catalyst for a mask-free, endemic future.
“The answer to getting our kids out of masks altogether is to get them vaccinated,” Burke said.
The board members asked several questions that ranged from advice on changing soiled masks to the threat of flu season, but they offered no feedback about which way they are leaning in the debate.
The board meets again in December and Crawford said they will take into account everything heard and come to a decision that will ensure students safely stay in school.
“We will come up with a thoughtful, appropriate way forward as best as we can fulfilling what we said was our objective,” he said.
Crawford also encouraged anyone with thoughts or opinions to contact the board at email@example.com or 200 West Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. He said that board members will take all emails and comments received into consideration before making their decision.