Almost one month away from the beginning of the academic year, Maryland’s schools superintendent on Wednesday provided additional guidance for public schools as they set their reopening plans during the COVID-19 outbreak. But she left it to the local school districts to decide whether to start the school year virtually or not.
“The imminent safety and health of students and staff must and always be the first priority,” State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon said during a State House news conference alongside Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).
Local school systems will have the flexibility to choose how they reopen in the fall and which students to prioritize for in-person learning, Salmon said.
“We want to get our students back in school as soon as possible for in person instruction, and this should be the driving goal and basis for all of our decisions,” Salmon said, citing the American Academy of Pediatrics position on whether to provide in person at the beginning of the academic year.
All school systems that reopen buildings must follow CDC guidelines, specifically for handwashing, physical distancing and face coverings, Salmon said. All students and teachers will be required to wear masks in buildings.
School systems must also have a clear process of what to do in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, which is defined as one positive case among students, educators and staff in a school building. Schools are responsible for providing a written notification to all identified contacts of coronavirus, as well as specifying how long they should remain in quarantine.
Last week, a group of Maryland teachers’ unions and parents wrote a letter to state officials, asking for all public schools to reopen entirely virtually in the fall. Already nine local school systems, largely in Central Maryland, have announced that they will begin the school year fully online: Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Caroline, Charles, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
In a statement shortly after Salmon’s news conference, Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost, a Baltimore County elementary school teacher, urged more school districts to follow suit.
“Virtual learning is not a perfect solution, but it’s the safest and focusing on just one mode of education enables educators to direct their total attention to making it more rigorous and equitable,” Bost said.
However, Salmon did not specify whether she is thinking of imposing a statewide mandate for first semester distance learning. School districts have until Aug. 14 to inform state officials of their reopening plans.
The state has committed a total of $255 million in CARES Act funding for education, Salmon said. Included is $100 million dedicated to address the digital divide and another $100 million for tutoring and relearning programs for students who experienced significant learning loss during the crisis learning phase last spring. $20 million has been used to expand rural broadband services, as well as $5 million for urban broadband.
Bost said robust funding is a must for this pandemic-influenced school year.
“We also know that the success of this school year and our ability to reopen schools as soon as possible will depend on a commitment to funding from federal, state, and local levels that we have not seen to date,” she said.