A state legislative committee voted Friday to let local school districts decide whether to require face coverings indoors, ending a statewide mandate.

The committee’s vote means each district in the state can set standards for mask use, instead of having the Maryland State Board of Education require that masks be worn.

But the State Board of Education’s mandate already allowed local districts to drop mask mandates if they hit certain benchmarks.

The State Board of Education voted 12-2 on Tuesday to rescind its statewide indoor mask mandate for schools.

The measure then went to the Maryland General Assembly’s Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) Committee, which also had to vote in favor for the statewide mandate to be lifted.

The AELR Committee — made up of both Democrats and Republicans in Maryland’s House of Delegates and Senate — voted 17-1 on Friday to affirm the State Board of Education’s position, lifting the mandate.

All three Montgomery County members on the AELR Committee — state Sens. Will Smith and Jeffrey Waldstreicher and Del. Kirill Reznik — voted in favor of lifting the statewide mandate.

The only committee member to vote no was Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, who represents Dorchester and Wicomico counties.

After voting, Reznik emphasized that a local school system still can require masks and it wouldn’t be defying the regulation.

Friday’s vote does not affect Montgomery County, which is continuing to require mask use indoors, but is examining whether to end its mandate.

Montgomery County school board members Rebecca Smondrowski and Karla Silvestre said during a meeting on Thursday that MCPS should also lift its mask mandate. Student board member Hana O’Looney was opposed and wants the mandate to continue.

Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said during that meeting that the district wants to wait to see what the AELR Committee did on Friday.

The Montgomery County board is expected to revisit the issue at its March 8 meeting.

Asked in an email on Friday if MCPS had any additional comments after the AELR Committee vote, district spokesman Chris Cram referred to a community message that went out on Friday.

The message reiterated that MCPS still has a mask mandate in place and that McKnight says “masks are part of a robust COVID-19 mitigation strategy.”

“MCPS will examine local virus data and make a final decision about masks in the coming weeks,” the community message says.

Also Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance about mask use.

The CDC now says mask use can be guided by COVID-19 levels in communities:

  • If the level is low, a person can decide on mask use based on personal preference.
  • If the level is medium, people can consult a health care provider for guidance related to their situation.
  • If the level is high, people should wear a well-fitting mask in indoor public places.

As of Friday, Montgomery County had a low level, according to the CDC.

Before voting on Friday, the AELR Committee heard from Clarence Crawford, the president of the State Board of Education, and State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury, both of whom recommended lifting the statewide mandate.

Crawford said the state board voted in August 2021 to impose a statewide requirement out of concern that some districts were not requiring masks when they should have been.

Then, in December, the state board created what it called “off ramps” allowing local districts to be exempt from the statewide mandate if they hit certain benchmarks showing progress.

Districts could lift their mandates if at least 80% of the county’s population is vaccinated against COVID-19 or at least 80% of students and employees are fully vaccinated.

A school district that doesn’t meet those rates could still lift its mandate if its county has 14 consecutive days of moderate or low transmission, based on data from the CDC.

Choudhry said improving metrics in Maryland show that it’s time to fully return mask decisions back to local districts.

During a public comment period before Friday’s vote, the AELR Committee heard some support for continuing the mask mandate, but more speakers were opposed.

Some speakers were vehement in their criticism of the AELR Committee and the State Board of Education for having the mandate at all, calling it an abuse of power that psychologically damaged children.

One speaker, though, said young children who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination would be at greater risk in school buildings if masks aren’t required.

Optional mask use for athletics

MCPS’ athletics department announced on Friday that it is making mask use optional for athletes, coaches and officials during practices, games and team events, as of March 1.

That extends to students on team benches and as people go to and from locker rooms.

People who are not fully vaccinated are still “strongly encouraged” to wear masks indoors, the athletic department said.

Spectators and other event personnel still must wear masks while indoors.

Also starting March 1, the district’s athletics program will align with the latest quarantine guidance announced at Thursday’s Montgomery County Board of Education meeting. Isolation and quarantine will be five days instead of 10.