With the first day of school less than a week away, top state officials are pressuring all local school systems to reopen for at least some in-person instruction this fall.
Every local school system is allowed to begin safely reopening their buildings for in-person learning, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced during a news conference Thursday afternoon. COVID-19 cases are declining across the state, with a positivity rate currently at 3.3%, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
“Nearly everyone agrees that there is no substitute for in-person instruction,” Hogan said.
All 24 Maryland school districts are beginning the year virtually, with some planning to bring in small groups of students for face-to-face learning as early as Sept. 8. However, eight school districts, including the two biggest, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, have indicated that they are remaining virtual for most of the first semester.
It is “simply not acceptable” that some school boards have “not even attempted to develop any safe reopening plans” that would bring students back into school buildings, Hogan said.
Health metrics have drastically improved since these schools made their original decision to shutter schools for half the school year, Hogan said. “I don’t really want to wait until the second quarter.”
“That’s 90 days, that’s a long time to have virtual instruction when we know that virtual instruction is very difficult for parents and very difficult for children, especially young children,” state Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon said at the news conference.
Hogan asked local school systems to reconsider their plans.
“It’s easier to say we are not going to bring any kids back for the rest of the year, as opposed to sitting down and doing the hard work of trying to figure out how could we get kids back for safe instruction,” Hogan said.
The authority to change reopening plans lies with each county board of education, but their decisions must be based on new statewide benchmarks, Hogan said. “We are going to put pressure on them.”
Hogan’s fellow Republicans are already starting to apply pressure.
Earlier Thursday, Del. Michael J. Griffith (R-Harford) and Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford) penned a letter to the Harford County schools superintendent and Board of Education, urging them to consider a hybrid re-opening plan.
“With a population of 255,441 residents, we have only seen 2,344 [COVID] cases in Harford County since March. That translates into a .01% infection rate,” they wrote. “HCPS must take full advantage of this low infection rate, adopt reasonable measures to protect teachers, students, and parents, and greatly expand opportunities for in-school learning.”
Salmon also said she is “strongly encouraging” local schools to reevaluate their mode of instruction by the end of the first quarter of the school year, which is in November.
At least 3 1/2 hours a day should be dedicated to live learning to ensure that all Maryland children are receiving an equal education, Salmon said. The state board will decide whether that should be a new requirement for all school systems early next week.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary of public health services, announced new metrics Thursday for school systems to use to evaluate whether it is safe to reopen for at least some face-to-face instruction.
If a school jurisdiction has below 5% test positivity, or five cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, it should have the ability to hold in-person instruction, as long as students, teachers and staff follow physical distancing and mask-wearing guidance, Chan said.
Even schools with positivity rates above 5% should still be able to open for at least some in-person learning in a hybrid model, she continued.
The decision is not a political issue, Hogan said, but very much the opposite. He noted that “national Democratic leaders” such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy similarly encouraged all schools in their states to reopen for in-person instruction in the upcoming school year.
Teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the newly announced guidelines.
“Today, [the governor and superintendent] chose to ambush and second guess the hard decisions that local boards of education, parents, and educators have made to keep students and schools safe. In the continued absence of adequate state and federal funds to help schools open safely — to include measures such as rapid testing, certified ventilation systems, and needed PPE — this is a recipe for chaos, confusion, distrust, and deepening the inequities that too many of our students face,” Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, said in a statement after the news conference.
Montgomery County Public Schools, which starts virtually on Monday, quickly responded to the new state guidelines, with officials saying they were “deeply disappointed by the last-minute announcement of this critical information for school systems.”
Prince George schools also start virtually on Monday and are planning to stay virtual until January.
“While I respect Governor Hogan’s desire to move back to in-person learning as soon as possible, we cannot responsibly do so at this time, especially since his reopening announcement today occurs just four days before the first day of school,” Prince George’s County Council Member Mel Franklin (D) said in a statement.
“Our school system has spent months planning this fall’s virtual session. It would be irresponsible to haphazardly discard those plans and throw our school semester into disarray.”
Baltimore County Executive John A. Olsweski Jr. (D) offered withering criticism of Hogan and Salmon.
“Governor Hogan has been absent for months on calls where I and other local leaders have been asking for re-opening guidelines from the state,” he said. “Now, days before schools open, the Governor and Superintendent Salmon have finally released their guidance, while dangling $10 million to convince historically underfunded systems to open — whether they are ready or not. That’s not leadership. Maryland students and families deserve better.”
Earlier this month, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) held a public roundtable discussion with three school superintendents and agreed that there needed to be clear, uniform statewide metrics for each school district to follow as they work on their reopening plans — ideally made by Chan and Salmon.
Yet these state lawmakers still do not think the newly-unveiled benchmarks are enough.
“MD gov just offered leadership through lip-service to school reopening, offering: minimal metric guidelines — which have already been met — and no guidance for when student/staff Covid cases breakout. Also, no guarantee of PPE equipment to schools,” Pinsky wrote on Twitter soon after the news conference.
Nor do the new guidelines include transmission rate thresholds or contact tracing, he said.
“We’d likely have more local school district consistency on reopening if the State had provided *any* guidance whatsoever prior to TEN DAYS before the planned start of SY 2020-21,” Ferguson tweeted.
Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) said she was also disappointed with the governor’s announcement.
“To be clear, this was a no-news press conference. Gov. says that schools can now reopen: that was already a local decision He announced MSDE has created metrics for schools to use — the day AFTER @BaltCitySchools reopened for teachers,” she tweeted.
“He should be embarrassed.”