By Mike Hellgren

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — After more than four hours of heated debate, divided lawmakers passed a mask mandate by a 10 to 7 vote. It covers all students and staff in Maryland public schools. The state school board already approved it, and that vote was the final step. The mask requirement became effective immediately.

“At the beginning of this once-in-a-generation pandemic, we said we were all in this together. Today’s vote reaffirms that we still are,” said Senator Jeff Waldstreicher, a Democrat from Montgomery County.

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“I think it sets up a very slippery slope for the Maryland state board of education to undo local decisions,” said Delegate Haven Schoemaker, a Republican from Carroll County. 

Carroll County had been the only school system in central Maryland without a mask mandate. 

“Where is the emergency? There is a real cost to forcing students to wear masks for seven hours a day—day after day—and it isn’t being acknowledged,” said Carroll County School Board member Donna Sivigny. 

Carroll County School Board President Marsha Herbert called a state mask mandate “overreach” 

One parent told the legislative committee, “None of you should be leaders of anything, let alone an entire state! The fact that you want to place 5-year-olds in masks for 7 to 8 hours at a time is sickening,” 

But Carroll County parent Maureen Aversa told lawmakers, “Covid doesn’t care if you’re a Carroll County girl. Covid doesn’t discriminate.”

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“Please enact this mask mandate. Please help keep my kids safe,” Matthew Stubblefield, another parent from Carroll County, pleaded with lawmakers. 

In Baltimore County, where the school system has already mandated masks, the head of the teachers’ union says the requirement is working.

“Students are wearing them when they’re supposed to. If they need a break, they pull it down for a minute and put it back up, but masking seems to be going very well,” said TABCO president Cindy Sexton. She also supports the system’s vaccination policy for teachers and support staff.

Senate President Bill Ferguson laments how divided people are but tells WJZ requiring masks is about safety. 

“I wish it had happened earlier. What happened today was common sense. We want to keep kids in school. We need to do whatever it takes to keep them in school, in person,” Ferguson told WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren. 

The state school board says no decision has been made on whether to mandate vaccines for those students who are eligible.

“The state of emergency was lifted, but the Delta variant has changed the game,” said Mohammed Choudhury, the state superintendent of schools, on the necessity of a mask mandate. “… Maryland was third from last on re-opening. It is not a stat to be proud of, and it is not a stat that I plan to go back to. Masking enables us to keep the vast majority of our children in school especially when there is a positive case or outbreak.“

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State school officials said they would periodically reassess the necessity of a mask mandate as cases rise and fall.