As local governments scramble to set up makeshift day care centers for children of essential personnel who are working through the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions find themselves at odds with the Maryland Department of Education over whether school buildings can be used to house some of those facilities.
In recent days, the leaders of seven of Maryland’s eight biggest jurisdictions — Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr., Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young — have written to State Superintendent of Education Karen B. Salmon, urging her to allow counties to open some of the childcare centers in schools.
Some school buildings in their jurisdictions are uniquely equipped to host day care programs during the emergency, they wrote, because they are already used for preschool childcare programs that are run by the counties or nonprofit groups.
“Every one of our counties includes the use of school buildings as part of our disaster response plan,” the executives, all of whom are Democrats, said. “Please don’t prevent us from using them in this instance.”
The Maryland Department of Education has told county leaders that schools may not be safe for the newly-organized child care centers that are cropping up across the state because the coronavirus could be spread through school buildings’ HVAC systems. But the county executives and Young disagree with that assessment.
State officials first expressed their reservations about using school buildings for emergency day care during a phone conversation with several county leaders last week.
Every day at 2 p.m. since the COVID-19 crisis hit, members of the state’s so-called Big Eight have had a conference call to discuss the challenges of governing in these uncertain times. Sometimes they chat with members of the state’s congressional delegation; other times they are briefed by high-ranking state officials; sometimes they just exchange information among themselves.
Former Anne Arundel County executive Steve Schuh (R), now the head of the state’s office to combat opioid addiction, is serving as the liaison between the state government and the county leaders during the pandemic.
In a letter to Schuh written over the weekend, then in a follow-up conversation, Pittman — who defeated Schuh in 2018 — pressed for the state to consider using schools for the child care centers. In the letter to Schuh, and in an interview with Maryland Matters Monday, Pittman said that he asked Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the Anne Arundel County health officer, and five Johns Hopkins experts who had briefed the county executives on one of their recent phone calls, whether the virus could be passed through a school HVAC system, “and the answer was a firm no.”
Samantha Foley, a spokeswoman for the MDE, did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview, Matt Akins, manager of HVACR education at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America Association Inc., said the question of whether the coronavirus can be passed through HVAC systems “has been the big debate recently.”
HVAC systems can vary in quality and they can be made of different materials, he said, but rather than the systems themselves, the ability to kill a virus in a building depends on “source control — can you keep the source of the contamination out of the building?”
Without permission to open child care facilities in schools, Anne Arundel this week is opening three in county recreation centers and is taking steps to open more in senior citizen centers.
Pittman praised Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic overall. And he said that while it could produce awkward situations, he’s glad Schuh is serving as state government’s primary contact for the Big Eight leaders during the crisis.
“It’s actually been good having Steve Schuh as the liaison,” Pittman said. “It’s been very helpful. He knows our world.”
Pittman credited state and local education officials for grappling with a problem that’s growing in magnitude.
“The state may have bitten off more than it could chew by providing free child care for a good chunk of our state’s economy,” he said.
But Pittman said he hopes he and his fellow local leaders can still persuade state officials to change their minds about using schools for the child care centers for essential workers.
“We’re going to continue agitating,” he said. “We clearly have a need.”
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