BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- By a vote of 12-2, the Maryland State Board of Education on Tuesday voted to rescind its mask mandate in schools, returning the decision to local districts.
"I'm encouraged because it is a step in the right direction that we needed," said Kelly McMillen, a parent who traveled from Frederick County to testify.
But the decision will not take effect until the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive & Legislative Review, a panel of state delegates and senators that oversees regulations or standards in the state, holds its own vote.
The AELR said it will hold a virtual public hearing and vote on the State Board of Education's request to rescind the mandate on Friday. Feb. 25 at 2:30 p.m.
"It's a multi-tiered approach. So we've been fighting the local board, we've been fighting the state board but we've also been fighting the AELR because they all have a say in it," said Stephanie Gaiser, another parent who traveled from Frederick County to Baltimore in order to testify at the meeting.
Previously, the state board established "off-ramps" for districts to lift the mandate: if at least 80% of the county population is vaccinated, if 80% of the school staff and students are fully vaccinated and if the county has gone 14 consecutive days with moderate to low transmission rate of COVID-19.
At Tuesday's meeting, State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury voiced support for returning masking policies to local control.
"We have a very smart response, we have very smart off-ramps, let them decide," Choudhury said. "If they want to come up and use one of the off-ramps, they can. If they do not, then that is fine."
Conditions are better in the state and vaccines and testing are more readily available, he added.
During a presentation at the meeting, Dr. Jinlene Chan, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, said there were more than 200 pediatric hospitalizations in January, when the Omicron variant fueled a rise in cases and hospitalizations.
Hospitalizations among adults peaked at 3,462 patients, while pediatric hospitalizations peaked at 61.
In Maryland, 73.7% of the population has received the primary series of COVID-19 vaccinations, meaning two shots of the Pfizer vaccine, two shots of the Moderna vaccine or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
There are an estimated 451,775 Marylanders between the ages of 12 and 17, and 74.5% of them are vaccinated, said Chan.
But only 36.9% of children in the state between the ages of 5 and 11 are vaccinated.
"The key message here is, again, vaccines work to prevent even kids from getting severely ill," said Chan.
She later added: "Given what we know now about this virus, there is no single 100% solution, as many have been seeking. At this point in the pandemic, we do have all the tools we need to keep kids in school safely."
Gov. Larry Hogan released a statement thanking the board for its decision.
"This action aligns with the data and the science, the recommendation of the State Superintendent of Schools, and the guidance of medical professionals across the country," he said.
Hogan called on the Maryland General Assembly to "act swiftly to ratify" the board's vote.
The state board of education passed a universal mask mandate last August, and the measure was approved by the legislature's joint committee in September.
Nearly three months later, the board established the benchmarks for lifting protocols.
Speaking at the board meeting Tuesday, Choudhury said the mandate had been an effective tool to keep schools open during multiple waves of cases.
"If I would go back, I would do it again, because it did what it needed to do," he said.
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