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A Maryland Senate committee heard Monday from health education experts who agreed that staff and students wearing masks in public schools help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles County), who visited an elementary school in his jurisdiction Monday on the first day of the school year, marveled at the compliance with face-covering requirements.

“It was amazing every single staff member and kindergartner on up [to students in higher grades] had their masks on,” he said during the committee meeting. “Seems like the reaction to the mask mandate is unanimous. How do you feel the reaction [would be if] we mandate vaccination for students and staff? Would it have equal, positive reaction?”

Daniel Salmon, a professor and director at the Institute for Vaccine Safety Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that decision isn’t as easy.

“With vaccines, the equation is a little more complicated,” Salmon said. “I think the argument for teachers is easier and more compelling than it is for children. Both because it’s a workplace environment issue and, therefore, a requirement for unemployment, versus a child who is a vulnerable population. We also have less data on children.”

Salmon spoke about COVID-19 mitigation efforts during a virtual briefing before the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

He also said public support would be helpful before state officials implement a vaccine mandate.

“My answer is not just about risks and benefits, but it is pragmatic,” he said. “If you try to mandate a vaccine before you have widespread support, you really risk public backlash.”

Karen Kotloff, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said about 26,000 children nationwide tested positive for COVID-19. As school started to reopen, she said the figure increased to 200,000 in the past two weeks.

Kotloff said she didn’t have specific figures for Maryland, but said 90% of the confirmed cases nationwide are coming from the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.

That’s one of the main reasons the state board of education approved an emergency declaration Thursday for all students, teachers and other staff to wears masks in all schools.

The declaration must receive final approval from the Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review. The joint committee, which reviews emergency declarations, must wait 10 business days to take a formal vote, meaning it wouldn’t come any earlier than Sept. 14.

Democratic leaders have urged Gov. Larry Hogan to waive the 10-day requirement so the committee could meet sooner and vote.

While in Baltimore on Monday, Hogan told WBFF-TV he’s not going to waive the waiting period.

“I’m not going to create a state of emergency to waive the ability for legislators to hear from the citizens,” the Republican governor said. “They just have to do the process as they normally do. It doesn’t really change much, except for those handful of kids in a couple of rural counties.”

Hogan has said school officials in the 23 counties and Baltimore City can implement its own rules on masks and vaccines.

Prince George’s County Public Schools did just that.

Public schools CEO Monica Goldson summarized the county’s process and why the decision was made for the state’s second-largest school district and its roughly 136,000 students. The county’s first day of school is Sept. 8.

One reason, she said, rests with the county continuing to record the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. As of Sunday, the number of cases stood at 91,629.

Employees who didn’t show proof of vaccination by Friday must adhere to weekly testing starting Sept. 13.

However, employees can “seek accommodations” for medical or religious exemptions through the district’s Office of Equity Assurance.

About 10,000 workers utilized paid vaccination leave when they received the first and second doses, but the number of vaccinated workers could be higher because some people such as Goldson got the shot on a weekend.

“I figured I can’t afford to take off a day for work, so I made sure I got the vaccination on a Saturday. Rested on Sunday and back to work on Monday,” she said.

Before Goldson announced the district’s employee vaccine mandate on Aug. 13, she acknowledged Monday that some employees emailed her saying they felt “forced” to get vaccinated.

“I’m now forcing them to take ownership of your health and remain alive,” she said in response. “That’s the way I see it.”

Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) asked Goldson about Salmon’s presentation in reference to seeking public support on implementing vaccine mandates.

“If I focused on the political piece of it, I would never be able to make a decision,” Goldson said. “I have focused on the health side of it. I’m sorry.”

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