Saying that continued full closure of in-person instruction in Maryland public schools was “simply not acceptable,” Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday unveiled a new set of coronavirus metrics that he said would allow all school systems to reopen their doors to students.
Given the new metrics, Hogan said, every county school system is “fully authorized to begin safely reopening.” That said, he acknowledged, the final decision is still up to county school boards.
Hogan said of those boards, as well as teachers unions and associations, “The hard work lies in developing the safe reopening plans, hybrid systems” to bring kids back.
Though 16 systems have made reopening plans, eight other county school boards “have not even attempted” to develop plans to bring students back in person, he said.
“This is simply not acceptable,” the governor said.
Jurisdictions with a positivity rate below 5% and a case rate of 5 per 100,000 people should be able to hold in-person instruction with social distancing, masks and other measures, said Dr. Jinlene Chan, acting deputy secretary for public health services. With higher case rates, some kind of hybrid instruction would be possible.
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Hogan said at the beginning of the briefing that all 24 Maryland jurisdictions have positivity test rates under 5% and case rates under 5 per 100,000. The state’s positivity rate on the whole is at 3.3% and has been under 5% for 63 consecutive days.
“We’re not going to order [school systems] to go back and open schools,” Hogan said.
He acknowledged that under the law he couldn’t do that, and pointed out that when President Donald Trump speculated earlier this summer that he might order schools to reopen, “no one listened to him.”
“But we’re going to strongly suggest that since the numbers have improved … we’re going to provide incentives” to school systems to reopen, the governor said.
Dr. Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, said that 16 Maryland school systems have plans for reopening their doors to small groups at various times during the fall.
She said the Education Department would be “strongly encouraging” school systems to review their plans and set minimum requirements for in-person instruction.
Of the other eight systems, Salmon said, “We’re hopeful they will reevaluate based on these metrics and feel more confident reopening.”
Prince George’s County is one of the systems that hasn’t made a plan, and Hogan said of the county specifically, “They should go back and reconsider.”
Of the eight systems in general, he said, “I think we’re going to go back and put pressure on them.”
He added, “We’re going to do what we can within the law.”
Prince George’s County Council member Mel Franklin said in a statement that the county “cannot responsibly” get back to in-person learnng at this time, especially since his reopening announcement occurs just four days before the first day of school.
“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. I strongly support the decision of PGCPS CEO Dr. Monica Goldson and the Board of Education to continue with their plans for a virtual PGCPS learning semester,” Franklin said.
Charles County Public Schools said that there is not more they want than to welcome students back to the classroom, but it will proceed with opening with virtual instruction on Monday.
“We will follow our progressive, five-phase reopening plan to bring students back to our school buildings as soon and as safely as possible,” Charles County Public Schools spokesperson Katie O’Malley-Simpson said in statement.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich described Hogan’s announcment an “unneeded disruption,” and said that county leaders and health officers should have been consulted and at least warned.
Chan was asked about procedures in the event of a case, or an outbreak, of the virus in a school. She didn’t give specifics, but said “that would be part of the partnership and discussion” with local health officials, with case-by-case options as to whether to clean a classroom, shut down a classroom or shut down a school.
Asked about the political implications of his move, Hogan referred to Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy, the governors of New York and New Jersey respectively, who have issued similar orders.
“Both of these governors, Democrats, said exactly what I’ve said. They should open, we want the kids back, and they’re allowed to open by the state,” Hogan said.
‘Recipe for chaos’
Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, took Hogan to task in a statement later Thursday.
“At a time when educators are focused on working hard to make the best of this year for students, the governor and superintendent are focused on throwing school communities under the bus,” Bost said. “We need collaboration and problem-solving, not political theater.
She continued, “The governor and superintendent abdicated responsibility for creating reopening standards and told districts to come up with their own plans, indicating appropriate confidence that local school systems would do what is best for students. Today, they 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.”
Bost, an experienced Baltimore County teacher, later told WTOP, “It’s very disheartening as we’re trying to begin this school year in this uncharted territory.”
She said educators have expressed how it would have been helpful to have statewide metrics for school systems much earlier, before the start of the school year.
“It seems to us very disingenuous and really not taking into consideration the work that stakeholder groups at each local district have done and put in place to start the year,” Bost said. “To me, it seemed very political in some of the systems that he (Hogan) was calling out.”
“Overall, we haven’t seen increased state funding,” Bost added, criticizing Hogan for not adequately funding schools.
She said that overwhelmingly teachers were concerned about returning to classrooms, especially when universities have had to change course, such as Towson switching to all-virtual instruction.
“There seems to be a rush to get back to in-person before we can put everything together, so we’re paying attention to everything that’s happening,” Bost said.
Montgomery County Public Schools, which starts virtually on Monday, issued a statement, saying it was “deeply disappointed by the last-minute announcement of this critical information.”
The school system asked for time to assess the state’s new direction for reopening.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks’ statement Thursday did not directly address Hogan’s announcement, saying, “While we are pleased to see our COVID-19 infections decline, we are very clear that this virus is still active in our community.”
Prince George’s County Public Schools also has an all-virtual start next week.
“We will continue to work with our doctors and medical professionals and reevaluate our distance learning model as circumstances change,” Alsobrooks added.
Prince George’s County school board Chair Alvin Thorton said in a statement, “We have listened to parents and our community in making decisions that prioritize our students’ needs. At this time, we have no plans to change course in reopening PGCPS.”
Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said in a statement that the school system will be reviewing the new information and guidance, but that it doesn’t currently impact the all-virtual start to the school year.
Frederick County Public Schools said though they are all-virtual for the first semester, there are plans to try and bring small groups of students back for classroom learning.
“We are glad to see Maryland lead the way with regards to health metrics; however, parents are very concerned about what happens if there is a positive case. Saying we will respond on a “case-by-case” basis is not helpful when communicating our plan to parents,” the school system said in a statement Thursday.
WTOP’s Teta Alim and Michelle Basch contributed to this report.