In the coming weeks, Maryland education officials will consider whether to loosen their guidance on mask mandates and quarantines for student and staff exposed to COVID-19.
The state school board agreed Tuesday to review the mask mandate in early December. The board approved the mandate Aug. 25 as schools were about to fully reopen for the first time in 18 months. The mandate was approved by a legislative committee and took effect Sept. 14 even as some districts resisted putting the mandate in place.
State School Board President Clarence Crawford asked the board to take up a review at its early December meeting, after three months of data on cases and outbreaks have been collected.
State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said he was working with Dr. Jinlene Chan, the Maryland health department’s deputy secretary, to consider changing the guidance on when students should quarantine after exposure to a person who has tested positive for the virus.
Recent data show that the number of new cases and outbreaks at schools have declined in the past week across the state, although hotspots in certain counties remain a concern.
Crawford didn’t say the board would overturn the mask mandate, but rather he wanted it reviewed.
“I would suggest we use some of our time in December to assess where we are and to get input from stakeholders,” he said. “Then take a reasonable course of action that is consistent with why we started this process.”
Crawford said the decision would be based on science.
“I would suggest that we build toward a decision, we build toward a reasoned approach about how we should go forward in the state,” he said.
Local school system leaders have made their own decisions about which students to quarantine when a positive case of COVID-19 is uncovered in a school, but most have followed state guidance from the Maryland health and education departments. The result is that 49,000 students and 1,800 staff have been quarantined for a time since the beginning of school this fall, though many of them never contracted the virus. There have been 10,800 students with confirmed cases.
Some parents have expressed concerns about the quarantines and delays in testing that have resulted in children losing classroom time when no online learning option exists in most systems. Carroll and Harford county public schools recently loosened their protocols.
In late September, Carroll County decided students and staff who are a close contact to a positive case but asymptomatic don’t need to quarantine. And last month, Harford leaders reduced required days out for symptomatic students from 14 to 10. Those deemed close contacts of a COVID-positive person will not have to quarantine unless they choose not to wear a mask.
“We are supportive of a modified quarantine,” Choudhury told the board. “We have just not put anything out, but I hope we can soon.”
He said school systems have expressed interest in such modifications.
Data released Tuesday by the Maryland State Department of Education showed that the number of active COVID outbreaks in Maryland schools has declined from 136 on Oct. 6 to 115 on Oct. 20. The state had 93 school outbreaks on Sept. 22. The number of cases of spread in childcare facilities and nonpublic schools that educate students with special needs also declined to their lowest level since the third week in September.
The largest number of quarantines through Oct. 20 this school year has been in Anne Arundel County, with 5,676 students quarantined at some point and in Baltimore County with 4,248 students quarantined. Carroll County had 3,912 students quarantined at some point, while Howard County had 3,074 students quarantined and Harford County had 2,468. Since the school systems have far different enrollments, the numbers aren’t comparable.