Requiring masks inside school buildings is the “lowest fruit” schools could take to protect themselves from the coronavirus, public health experts told Maryland lawmakers on Monday, but demand that students and teachers getting vaccinated or having students maintain a physical distance in classrooms is more difficult.
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As many Maryland students return to school this week as the delta variant continues to drive the state’s rates of COVID-19 cases up, requiring masks inside school buildings is the “fruit of the lower “that schools could take to protect themselves from the coronavirus, public health experts told lawmakers on Monday.
“Children with masks play just as hard and learn as well as children without masks, but they are protected from acquiring COVID and its spread to others,” Karen L. Kotloff, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland Medical System, told the Senate Committee on Education, Health and the Environment.
âI think this is the lowest fruit and the simplest intervention that can be done,â she continued. “Masks are easy.”
Meanwhile, other measures such as requiring students and teachers to be vaccinated or for students to maintain physical distance in classrooms are more difficult, she continued.
Requiring masks is an inexpensive way to reduce COVID-19 transmission rates, said Tara Kirk Sell, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Monday’s legislative meeting came after the Maryland State Board of Education passed a universal mask mandate for public schools in a hastily scheduled meeting last week. Previously, the decision to issue masking warrants for students, teachers and staff was left to local school boards when decisions to be approved by Maryland State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury reopened.
By law, the General Assembly’s Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee (AELR) must approve the National Board of Education’s emergency regulations for it to come into effect. The committee is expected to vote on the issue at a public meeting on September 14, allowing some school systems to start the school year without the need for masks.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) has the option to waive the required 10 working day waiting period before the AELR committee can vote on the emergency settlement, but Hogan said on Monday he was not considering not to do so.
“I’m not going to create a state of emergency to give up the ability for lawmakers to hear from citizens, they just have to go through the process they normally do,” Hogan told WBFF-TV.
Republican lawmakers also pleaded with the committee not to rush the 10-day review period to allow for a deliberative process.
“We have serious concerns about the State Board of Education’s unprecedented usurpation of local control by making masking mandatory for Maryland students,” a statement from the House Minority Caucus said.
During Monday’s briefing, Senator Jason C. Gallion (R-Cecil and Harford) suggested that only children with underlying health conditions should wear N95s – fitted, high-filtration medical masks – “instead to have these fabric masks worn by all children. . “
But Kotloff pointed out that healthy children can also contract the coronavirus.
“You don’t have to have an underlying disease to have a deadly COVID infection, and so how do you know what a kid it’s going to be … to protect that kid’s life?” ” she said. In addition, the more a virus goes back and forth within a population, the more a virus can mutate and become more virulent, she continued.
âAlmost anything that can happen to an adult can happen to a child,â Kotloff said. The longer-term effects of the coronavirus contraction can also plague children, such as cognitive impairment, fatigue, and chronic breathing problems.
Nationally, the number of children with COVID-19 rose from 26,000 to 200,000 last week, according to Kotloff.
Senator Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) questioned whether it was good policy to have a ‘one size fits all’ approach if different areas of the state have different transmission rates.
But Senator Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) pointed out that every county in the state currently has a high or substantial transmission rate of 50 to 100 or more cases per 100,000.
âWhen everything is substantial, then I think it makes sense that the policy is pretty consistent,â Sell said. âWhen the going gets tough, people can make more nuanced decisions at lower levels. “
Public school systems in Montgomery and Prince George counties require teachers and staff to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or have weekly tests.
But imposing vaccines on children will be more difficult than imposing masks, said Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. If a vaccination mandate is implemented before it enjoys widespread public support, it risks a backlash that can significantly undermine the vaccination effort.
However, the bar is different for teachers and staff, he continued. âIt’s a workplace mandate, which is different. And teachers can choose whether or not they want to be teachers and where they work and that’s a professional risk, so I think that’s a lower bar, âhe said.
When people feel pressured to get vaccinated, “it’s scary for people,” Kotloff said. Allowing people to voice their fears about the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as educating them about the science is the best way forward, she continued.