BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Students in Maryland’s public schools will be required to wear masks for the rest of the school year—unless their county or school meets benchmarks based on vaccination or transmission rates.

A General Assembly panel voted 11-5 on Wednesday to pass an emergency rule approved last month by the Maryland Board of Education, which extends a mask mandate for 180 days and provides “off ramps” for the mandate to be lifted.

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The rule passed by the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive & Legislative Review goes into effect immediately and will last the remainder of the school year.

State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said the regulation accomplishes his responsibility of keeping schools open and having students continue their learning in person.

“Now we are creating off ramps that encourage responsible behavior, and it takes us through the end of the school year,” Choudhury told lawmakers. “I don’t plan to come back to you with another emergency regulation on this topic.”

Schools can lift their mask mandates under the following conditions: 80% of the county is vaccinated, 80% of the students and staff at a school are vaccinated or if the county’s transmission rate is “low” or “moderate” for 14 consecutive days.

So far, none of Maryland’s counties has reached any of those “off ramps,” though Choudhury said Howard and Montgomery counties are close to meeting the 80-percent vaccination benchmark.

Last month, the Board of Education voted 12-1 to approve the measure, despite concerns from one member about what it meant for local control.

As a health professional, Sen. Addie Eckardt said she appreciated the compromise provided by off ramps, but she would not support the regulation.

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“I’m increasingly concerned that masks in one way are providing a false sense of security to many of our children because masks alone are not, I think, as effective as handwashing and proper hygiene and distancing,” Eckardt said. “I’m also concerned with local control.”

“I’m concerned about the precedent this sets with regard to the issue of usurpation of local control over decisions such as this,” Del. Haven Shoemaker added.

Saying he has three children in public schools, Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher said he felt compelled to do what’s best for his children and their schoolmates.

“I’ve seen the mask mandate keep my own children safe in our public schools and know it will help keep other children of my constituents safe,” Waldstreicher said.

In Sen. Ron Young’s eyes, the emergency regulation doesn’t go far enough.

“While it won’t do as much as I’d like to see done, I think it’s certainly better than not doing it,” Young said.

Senate Chair Sarah Elfreth said one thing all members of the committee could agree on was in-person learning is the best environment for students. She said this rule is the safest way to achieve that.

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“We are in crisis mode and it’s incumbent on all of us as members of the community and members of the state to do all we can to slow the spread and ensure that we can get out of this crisis someday and hopefully soon,” she said.

CBS Baltimore Staff