As the 136,500 Prince George’s County Public Schools students began virtual learning this week, there’s a push for the state of Maryland to hold some form of in-person instruction later this year.
Prince George’s Schools CEO Monica Goldson said health and safety remain the most important decision based on plans prepared in July.
The county continues to lead the state with the most confirmed cases at nearly 27,000. Goldson said five staff members died from COVID-19.
“It was important to us to make sure that we created a safe environment and we continue to move forward academically,” she said Monday, Aug. 31 while visiting Cooper Lane Elementary in Landover Hills. “We’ve given our resources totally different than we did in the spring to help support our students, create parent centers [and] create a parent hotline. Safety, equity and excellence. All of those things are important to us.”
The state of Maryland’s second largest school system joined eight others this week where students sat at their computers and other technology devices learning online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The other 15 school systems in Maryland will hold the first day of school after Labor Day on Sept. 8.
Prince George’s and several other jurisdictions that include Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties plan to keep students out the buildings for the entire first semester through January.
However, a statewide proposal encourages all schools to offer some in-person instruction later this year. It comes with a financial incentive: to obtain portions of a $10 million grant to help with schools that do open.
State Superintendent Karen Salmon said during a press conference last week in Annapolis she “is strongly encouraging” all 24 school systems to provide a form of in-person instruction at the end of the first quarter.
School boards vote on calendars to set each marking period during that time frame.
For instance, the last day for Prince George’s students will be Nov. 5. It ends four days later Nov. 9 in Montgomery County.
“Parents of our at-risk children and our children with special needs have been especially consistent with their message that they need direct instruction for their children,” Salmon said. “I’ve heard loud and clear from parents across the state that what occurred this past spring is not acceptable. We can’t allow that to happen again.”
The state Board of Education approved a plan Tuesday, Sept. 1 that requires a minimum of six hours of school per day with at least 3½ hours of synchronous instruction for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Students enrolled in half-day pre-kindergarten must receive a minimum of 90 minutes of synchronous learning during the course of the half-day.
Local school officials must submit a plan by the third week of November that includes a process to provide some form of in-person instruction in 2021. However, school systems aren’t required to if officials feel it remains unsafe due to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, about 16 school systems will offer small group instruction and gradually go into in-person learning in the fall. Calvert and Worchester counties offered some summer in-person instruction, Salmon said.
Gov. Larry Hogan, standing alongside Salmon and Jinlene Chan, acting director of the state’s Health Department, highlighted some of the benchmarks.
According to state metrics Thursday, Aug. 25, approximately 23 jurisdictions are below five percent positivity rate of the coronavirus and five cases per 100,000 people.
Worchester County on the Eastern Shore remains the only county above a five percent positivity rate.
Also, Hogan said the positivity test rate for residents 35 and younger now stands at 3.79 percent. The figure stood at 6.7 percent on July 29.
On the same day for residents 35 and older, the percentage was 3.8 percent and decreased to about 2.8 percent Thursday.
Schools must adhere to these guidelines: physical distancing; face coverings; staying home if showing COVID-19 symptoms; and cleaning and disinfection of classrooms and other parts of buildings.
Hogan stressed school systems are permitted by law when it can reopen, but hopes school officials heed his and Salmon’s advice.
“The state department of education has asked county school boards to do what other aspects of government have already done and what the private sector … have done and been doing for months,” Hogan said. “To develop safe and phased plans reopening plans that could help us to begin to put some sense of normalcy back into the lives of our students, parents and teachers, and at the same time, working diligently to keep them safe.”
Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s educators’ association, said closing schools for the full semester ensures students, teachers and other staff are safe.
“Would you rather be safe, or would you rather have the money?” she said. “If there are those resources available, then give us that money to help us decrease the digital divide that exists amongst our students. This is not a game for us in Prince George’s County.”