Local school leaders and health officials told state lawmakers Wednesday that they want more statewide coordination and guidance with the state superintendent and governor regarding school reopening plans.
“I find the silence deafening coming from the state, from the governor, from the Department of Health, from the state superintendent, that there’s not a clear procedure…health is health,” Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said during a Senate briefing on returning students to in-person instruction in K-12 schools.
Local superintendents have been left in the precarious position of developing specific protocols for school systems on their own, such as figuring out testing regimen details and what to do if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a classroom.
Having uniform and consistent COVID-19 protocols across all 24 jurisdictions would help alleviate confusion for residents and encourage transparency, officials said.
Baltimore City should not be negotiating with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University to get staff tested when surrounding counties have the same needs, schools CEO Sonja Santelises told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
“The patchwork approach to things like contact tracing and testing really is making it even more challenging to return,” she said.
If one county is sending students back to school sooner than an adjoining district — or if it’s closing school buildings faster than other counties, “parents are going to ask, ‘are you not protecting my children?’” Pinsky, the committee chairman, said.
Another challenge school systems are facing is declining enrollment numbers, especially in Kindergarten, which can affect how much funding school jurisdictions can get from the state next year, said Prince George’s County Schools CEO Monica Goldson.
Montgomery County has 3,700 fewer students than last year, schools Superintendent Jack Smith said, but officials are expecting many to come back when the pandemic recedes. Adjusting school funding that addresses these concerns will require help from the General Assembly, Smith said.
Although the state has defined what a COVID-19 outbreak in a classroom or school building is, specific protocols on what to do when such an outbreak occurs were not, Harford County Superintendent Sean Bulson said. It is unclear when schools should close classrooms or entire buildings and for how long, he said.
Greensboro Elementary School in Caroline County recently closed for two weeks after eight staff members received positive COVID-19 test results.
In the absence of state guidance relating to school closures, each jurisdictions’ procedures will be a little different from others, which leaves room for subjective decisions, said Dr. Travis Gayles, the Montgomery County health officer. Although each county is different, at a certain point there needs to be a medically driven standard for all jurisdictions about the number of positive cases required before closing school buildings, Pinsky said.
Local superintendents and state legislators have been urging the Maryland State Department of Education and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) to provide more guidance to local school systems since this summer. Yet local leaders have encountered “little leadership and direction,” which is “abominable,” Pinsky said. “All we hear is crickets,” he said in an interview.
A few state lawmakers questioned giving up local authority over COVID-19 procedures in schools.
“In Harford and Cecil County — the way we are moving might be a little different than some of the more populated areas,” said Sen. Jason Gallion (R-Harford). “I really want to stress that as a priority for having that local control.”
Montgomery County’s Smith stressed that local leaders were not asking for a blanket statewide plan on every reopening decision, as he acknowledged that each jurisdiction is different. But he said statewide procedures for things like immunizations would be helpful. State leadership on testing regimens and contact tracing procedures are also needed, Pinsky said.
School officials said they have brought up questions about what will happen when a potential COVID-19 vaccine becomes available and are looking to the Maryland Department of Education for a plan around vaccine administration. Ultimately, the immunization program is a state program, not a local school program, Smith said.