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Governor announces schools can safely reopen

By Ally Lanasa, Staff Writer

Gov. Larry Hogan

(Aug. 28, 2020) Maryland school systems are allowed to reopen for some level of in-person instruction as a result of improved health metrics, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday.

The statewide coronavirus positivity rate has decreased to 3.3 percent, Hogan said.

The positivity rate has been below the recommended 5 percent to reopen for 63 consecutive days, and under 4 percent for 19 consecutive days.

“In order for us to keep moving forward and to keep making progress, it is absolutely critical that we begin the process of getting our children safely and gradually back into the classrooms,” the governor said. “I believe very strongly that every single child in Maryland deserves access to a world-class education, regardless of what neighborhood they happen to grow up in.”

To help students most affected by the pandemic, Hogan’s administration has committed $345 million more in educational funding through the federal CARES Act, resources for kindergarten through 12th grade technology, grants to address academic accessibility, targeted tutoring for at-risk students and expanded broadband access.

“There is broad and overwhelming agreement among public health leaders, education experts and parents that finding a way to safely begin children returning to classrooms must be a top priority,” Hogan said.

He added that there is no substitution for in-person instruction.

All county boards of education were to submit their final recovery plans to State Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon and the State Board of Education for review by Aug. 14, but eight boards did not.

“Some of the county school boards have not even attempted to develop any safe reopening plans, which would bring any kids back for any form of in-person instruction,” Hogan said. “This is simply not acceptable. It is essential that we all work together on flexible, hybrid plans to safely get some of our kids back into classrooms and into healthy and supportive learning environments.”

Of the 24 school systems in the state, 16 districts have developed plans to bring students back in the classrooms in some capacity during the fall, Salmon said.

“The State Department of Education and the Maryland Department of Health believe that all county school systems are able to begin safely reopening,” Hogan said. “Of course, the authority and decision making on those safe reopenings continues to rest with those county boards of education, but their decisions should and must be based on a new set of statewide metrics, guidelines and benchmarks that are being announced today.”

Schools should establish safe and phased recovery plans to restore some aspect of normalcy, the governor added.

“Across the state, we are at levels that we believe can allow all schools to move forward with some level of in-person learning,” said Dr. Jinlene Chan, the active deputy secretary for public health at the Maryland Department of Health.

The statewide metrics implemented are test positivity rates and the cases per 100,000, or case rates, over a seven-day period.

“What this metric shows is the level of community spread, but it’s adjusted for the population size of any particular jurisdiction,” Chan said.

Jurisdictions with higher case rates should be able to develop a hybrid model with limited in-person instruction, Chan added.

The CDC and Maryland Department of Health also advise the enforcement of physical distancing of six feet or greater, face coverings at all times in school buildings, on school grounds, on school transportation, staying at home when exhibiting covid-19 symptoms and cleaning and disinfection measures.

“We know the impact of school closures on families and particularly on students’ educational needs and emotional well-being,” Chan said. “But we also recognize it’s imperative to protect kids and school staff to the greatest extent possible from the risk of covid-19 infection while in a school setting.”

Salmon said the State Board of Education will be evaluating the implementation of each school system’s recovery plan in the coming weeks.

“Next week, the State Board [of Education] will discuss my recommendation on the minimum number of hours of real time face-to-face instruction that systems must provide to students during this initial period of virtual learning,” Salmon said.

She recommends six hours of work to be completed each school day with at least three and a half hours of synchronous learning.

“Setting this standard is the only way to ensure an equitable education for all children across our state,” Salmon added.

With the state’s approving numbers and new health metrics, Salmon strongly suggests local school systems reevaluate their instruction models by the end of the first quarter of the academic year, “especially if they have indicated that they are maintaining a virtual delivery system until January of 2021,” she said.

Worcester County Public Schools has set an example for other school systems by offering limited in-person instruction through summer school for at-risk students.

According to Superintendent Lou Taylor, the goal for Worcester County Public Schools is to transition into a hybrid model of instruction by Sept. 28.

“As school systems reconsider their decisions to return to in-person instruction, we will also continue to reassess whether we can increase the capacity in childcare classrooms,” Salmon said. “The governor and I will be traveling to different school sites in Maryland in the coming weeks to observe systems that are bringing small groups of students back into a safe and educationally effective environment.”