Maryland Educators Call For Safety Measures Before School Buildings Reopen

School Systems
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More than three-quarters of Maryland educators do not think that schools will be able to reopen safely for full in-person learning for the next few months, according to a recent Maryland State Education Association poll.

Before school buildings can reopen, there needs to be daily sanitation of schools, adequate air ventilation and procedures for anyone who tests positive for COVID-1, including contact-tracing, according to more than 90% of Maryland educators who took the poll.

Teacher unions are asking all educators, students and parents to use a checklist, endorsed by Maryland State Education Association, Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland PTA, to assess whether or not a school building is safe to reopen for in-person learning. It includes conditions such as no-touch hand soap dispensers and hand sanitizers in classrooms, HVAC systems to run for two hours before and after school buildings are occupied, and a supply of masks.

“This checklist is not asking for anything outrageous. It is asking for what is right. It is asking for what is safe,” Cheryl Bost, president of MSEA, said in a statement.

Teachers are also asking for more transparent data on COVID-19 cases in schools, as Maryland health officials are not making public the list of schools where there are COVID-19 cases, like New York City has.

Right now, it is up to each local health department to decide how they will report new coronavirus cases and how they will communicate that data to school staff and parents. But standardization across the state on how much school-specific data on COVID-19 cases is reported and shared, such as in a public dashboard, is necessary for safety, Bost said during a press conference Monday. It is possible to do this while respecting students’ privacy, she said.

Meagan Fitzpatrick, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland, stressed that community incidence rates matter. When the rate of positive cases in the community doubles, the risk also doubles for the surrounding schools, she said. Dorchester County’s rate more than tripled over the last two weeks, leading to a decision to close all school buildings last Wednesday.

Bost highlighted what teachers and state lawmakers have been asking for since the summer: more state leadership.

“The state and the state board continue to say ‘here’s guidance,’ but they’re not rolling up their sleeves and helping to do any of these things and they really have no recognition of what it means to teach in a hybrid situation,” Bost said.

The Maryland State Board of Education voted Monday to allow winter high school sports to begin two months earlier, on December 7. Winter sports in public schools were previously scheduled to begin on February 1.

“Educators are working hard and are caught between political agendas, our school districts’ decisions, and ongoing debates on social media. It’s exhausting — and it’s compounded by a workload that keeps growing,” said Melinda Kearns, a teacher in Queen Anne’s County.

The workload for teachers is probably 90% more than in a normal year, said Pam Gaddy, a teacher in Baltimore County. She said she works from early morning until the night and on weekends “just to keep up.”

“As I help out my students and their families, I know that I am sacrificing time with my husband and helping my own children in their education,” Kearns said. “It’s a daily struggle and battle that I am facing, and I know that I am not alone.”

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