ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stern message Thursday to public education officials in the state: It’s time to start getting children back in school.
Hogan called for in-person learning to resume by March 1, making his case even as the number of coronavirus cases in Maryland continues to rise. He pointed out during a press conference that the state health department’s revised guidelines now say only 4% of those 19 and younger who have contracted the virus attended, visited or worked in a pre-K-12 school.
Additionally, educators are now eligible to receive a vaccine in Maryland, he said.
“There is no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools. None,” the Republican governor said. “This really isn’t controversial.”
To accentuate his point, about a dozen public schools officials including state Superintendent Karen Salmon were vaccinated Thursday inside St. John’s College’s gymnasium.
“When you think about all the deaths in what COVID has caused, this is being done in the best interest of the children,” said Donyelle Cottingham, a ninth grade counselor in Wicomico County who volunteered to receive the vaccine. “I hope this would encourage others to do the same thing.”
Hogan emphasized that newly minted President Biden made reopening elementary and middle schools a top priority for the first 100 days of his administration. An executive order signed Thursday by the president calls for the federal departments of education and health and human services to provide guidance on how to safely reopen schools.
Maryland has two educational design options, the first one dealing with daily in-person learning for children with disabilities or special learning needs, those facing extraordinary challenges in a virtual learning environment, and career technology students. Elementary and secondary students would be phased in to daily in-person instruction, but would switch a hybrid of remote and in-person learning “if health and safety requirements cannot be met.”
The second option would be for elementary students to start with a hybrid schedule before eventually converting to daily in-person instruction. Secondary students would start with remote learning first.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary for public health, said reopening decisions shouldn’t be based on vaccine availability or level of vaccinations among staff.
“I do encourage all education staff to get a vaccine when it becomes available,” she said.
Hogan mentioned a study released this month by the American Academic of Pediatrics that found in-person learning can be safe for educators and students.
The organization outlined key principles for in-person learning to work, such as adjusting school policies with new information about the pandemic, having school officials coordinate and communicate with state and local public health experts, and ensuring the policies are in languages other than English.
“With the above principles in mind, the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” the study said. “Although the AAP strongly advocates for in-person learning, the current widespread circulation of the virus will require jurisdictions to review the local data as well as the current evidence on transmission in schools to determine the feasibility of in-person instruction.”
Although some smaller school systems in Maryland have conducted a mixture of in-person and virtual learning, some of the bigger systems in the D.C. and Baltimore areas haven’t opened their buildings for students since the onset of the pandemic in March.
Thanks to the federal government, Salmon said, $780 million will be used for school systems to implement summer programs, upgrade technology and other education tools.
Although the state cannot force school systems to reopen, Hogan provided examples of other cities and states such as Chicago cutting off pay for teachers who refused to return to the classroom. Ohio will offer vaccinations only for educators who commit to returning to the classrooms.
“We do not want to have to take such actions here in Maryland,” Hogan said. “But if school systems do not immediately begin a good-faith effort to return to the classrooms, we will explore every legal avenue in our disposal. The time has come to get all of our kids back into the classrooms and to reopen our schools.”