BALTIMORE (WJZ) — The first day of the new school year for many students and staff across the state is officially in the books.

The conversation about keeping students, staff and the community at large safe remains top of mind for state leaders, especially with students younger than 12 still unable to get vaccinated.

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State leaders are looking at COVID mitigation measures at schools; the goal is to avoid closing them.

Health officials said it’s a combination of steps that need to be taken to prevent that from happening.

As students and staff return back to the classrooms during a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Maryland, safety remains paramount.

“Nationally, about 98 percent of cases are the delta variant, and it may have more of a tendency to affect younger people,” said Dr. Karen Kotloff of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “That probably is being exacerbated by the fact that children are going back to school.”

Monday, the Maryland Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held a virtual hearing to discuss the importance of masking in schools, along with other key COVID mitigation strategies, like ventilation and vaccines.

“No measure will provide perfect protection from the virus that causes COVID-19, but a consolidation of imperfect solutions will go a long way to reduce those risks,” said Dr. Tara Kirk Sell with Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health.

This discussion comes as the state’s school board passed an emergency regulation to require masks in all public schools last week.

“In Maryland, with the delta variant and current transmission levels, I really do think universal masking is needed,” Kirk Sell said.

Most of the state’s 24 school districts are already mandating masks, but a few including Carroll County are making it a choice.

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“No one is saying one opinion is right over another and no one is saying one opinion is wrong over another, everyone feels different regarding this situation,” said Tara Battaglia, CCPS board member.

The Carroll County Public School board also held a hearing Monday anticipating a general assembly committee will give the final stamp of approval to the universal mask mandate.

Many weren’t happy about it.

“There could be significant health consequences to some kids when they are forced to wear a mask for seven hours a day, that’s why these types of health decisions need to be left up to parents,” said Donna Sivigny, CCPS board member.

A final decision on universal masking in schools will be made during a virtual hearing on Sept. 14.

The Carroll County school board is already working on a request for an exemption from masks and flexibility on the mask mandate based on local covid cases.

While a few districts are requiring vaccines for school staff, when it comes to students, we’re not quite there yet, said Dr. Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety.

“I think with vaccines, the equation is a little more complicated, and I would argue and many would agree, that to make it mandatory, you need more confidence in the safety than you would simply to make it available,” Salmon said.

For the latest information on coronavirus go to the Maryland Health Department’s website or call 211. You can find all of WJZ’s coverage on coronavirus in Maryland here.

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