In the absence of specific guidance from the Maryland State Department of Education, state legislators are encouraging local school superintendents to coordinate a set of common standards that all schools must meet to reopen for in-person learning.
During an online education roundtable hosted by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) Thursday, three school superintendents agreed that there needed to be clear, uniform statewide metrics for each school district to follow as they work on their reopening plans, such as the number of positive cases that warrant closing a school building.
Without such statewide guidelines, there may be “finger-pointing” from county to county, as well as questions of why some students are going back to school in-person while others are not, said Pinsky, chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Having different reopening approaches across the state can cause confusion and casts doubt on their credibility, said Jack Smith, superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools. If another school district uses a different approach than his own, Smith said he may wonder if their approach is better and if he should change his plans.
“Don’t tell me to follow CDC guidelines, don’t tell me to work with my county health department,” Smith said. “What’s a standard for the school environment?”
Specific concerns, such as whether plexiglass barriers are necessary for school secretaries, are not clearly addressed in CDC guidelines, said Sonja Santelises, CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools. These are the kinds of situations that were “frankly left to us [local school systems] to come across rather than being part of standard operating procedures.”
Consistent metrics across the state would also help build staff and parents’ confidence in returning to school because information would be as transparent as possible, rather than appearing as if it were made behind closed doors, Santelises said.
Summer school teachers in Baltimore were afraid to return to in-person learning at first, but they began to feel comfortable when there were safety standards in place, such as limiting the number of children in each classroom to seven or eight, Santelises said.
Having an expedited testing procedure for staff as a part of the statewide guidelines would also be helpful, superintendents said. One employee was thought to have contracted COVID-19 while working in summer school, and it took 10-12 days to learn that it was a negative case, Santelises said.
“If we could shrink that window, the ability to keep learning in-person is much easier than to just shut everything down for two weeks every time someone thinks they might [be positive],” she said.
The superintendents also questioned their ability to pay for all the extra reopening costs.
The Talbot County school system received $880,000 more than last year from the state, but Talbot County Superintendent Kelly Griffith said she was told that the funding may be in jeopardy. “If that happens, we’re going to be in real trouble and we will have to…make those difficult decisions not to open,” she said.
Figuring out what the non-negotiables are is important for school districts to be able to develop a sustainable plan, Griffith said.
Santelises said Baltimore City received $24 million for tutoring, but she later discovered that the district had to spend all that money within 2 1/2 months.
“It sounds like tons of money, but to only have it for September and October…we’ve now ‘rushed’ spent $24 million…you don’t have that same quality plan,” Santieles said. “I think that the way that the funds come is as important as the funds themselves.”
It would be ideal if the state secretary of Health and state schools superintendent could take the lead as much as possible in developing a common standard that all schools must meet to reopen face-to-face learning, the superintendents said.
But because local school districts have not received such guidance from the state, Pinsky suggested that all 24 superintendents coordinate with each other and their local health officials to establish common reopening standards.
“There is no right answer here,” Ferguson said. “In the case of not having a right or true answer, some answer is better than no answer, and if there is consistency and certainty, that will at least be able to be some basis by which decisions can be made in the best interest of outcomes for kids.”