Tonya Sweat agrees with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan: students need to be back in the classroom with their peers and teachers.

Sweat, parent of a 9-year-old daughter who attends Accokeek Academy, said COVID-19 vaccinations should be provided for school personnel before children enter the buildings.

The education advocate who stepped down in November as vice president of advocacy for the Maryland PTA said the March 1 deadline Hogan has imposed for students to return back in the classrooms remains too soon.

“What I need the governor to understand is our local school systems need money, they need guidance and they need honest information so that they can effectively plan and return our children to school without putting the students, educators and support staff in harm’s way,” she said. “I don’t know where he got his magic wand from but we need a little more.”

Hogan, state superintendent Karen Salmon and Dr. Jinlene Chan, acting deputy secretary for public health, said help is on the way.

Salmon, who joined several education professionals to receive a COVID-19 vaccine last week in Annapolis, said $780 million will be used for school systems to implement summer programs and to purchase technology and other education tools.

Hogan announced Jan. 25 that the state will provide nearly $21 million toward education which includes $10 million in competitive grants. A school system would receive $1 million in grants if officials “present a unique or innovative approach to engage students, teacher and school communities” during the coronavirus pandemic. Priority will be given to programs that address at-risk students, the governor’s office said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Hogan said the Maryland National Guard will help administer shots and other logistics during the vaccine rollout.

The state education and health departments implemented two educational designs.

The first deals with daily in-person learning for students with disabilities, special learning needs, students with challenges to virtual learning and career technology students. Elementary and secondary students can receive phased-in daily instruction or a combination of remote and in-person learning known as hybrid “if health and safety requirements cannot be met.”

The second option for elementary students would be hybrid learning with phased in daily in-person instruction. Secondary students would start with remote learning first.

Chan said reopening decisions shouldn’t be based on vaccination availability or the level of vaccinations among staff.

“I do encourage all education staff to get a vaccine when it becomes available,” she said.

Although the state cannot force school systems to reopen, Hogan provided examples in other cities and states such as Chicago that have cut 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.”

Education leaders described Hogan’s words as “disrespectful” and a form of “bullying.”

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said she’s pleased that more than 76,000 members are eligible to receive a vaccine.

However, vaccination distribution hasn’t been done equally statewide.

One of Maryland’s smallest counties, Caroline along the Eastern Shore, moved into the third part of the state’s first phase vaccination plan. Bost said all of its educators have been vaccinated.

However, the bigger jurisdictions with the highest confirmed coronavirus cases such as Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties still need more vaccines and assistance to administer them. Buildings remain closed for students who’ve been in virtual learning since mid-March.

“We’re not trying to finds all of the ways we can’t go back but we’re trying to find all of the solutions so that we can go back,” Bost said. “We’ve been doing that since the first day we left but it takes money, time and people. For the governor to say people just aren’t trying to do it, they’re setting up roadblocks. None of that’s true.”

Will Schools Reopen in February?

While a Memorandum of Agreement [MOA] signed by Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis and D.C. Public Schools [DCPS] Chancellor Lewis Ferebee last year allowed DCPS to call in teachers for in-person learning starting Feb. 1, it also provided the union an opportunity to challenge reopening plans based on circumstances of the pandemic.

As DCPS and public charter school teachers start vaccinations this week, concerns have centered on the likelihood that most, if not all, teachers conducting in-person learning would not receive the two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine recommended by healthcare professionals in time for the phased reopening of schools.

Meanwhile, WTU representatives have continued to press the DCPS’ central office about whether the proper protocols, as outlined in the MOA and a checklist released at the beginning of the academic year, have been followed to open all of the school campuses, especially those located east of the Anacostia River.

“It was agreed in the Memorandum of Agreement that each school before reopening would have a walk through and they would use the checklist to do so,” said James Isreal, WTU’s vice president of middle schools and a teacher at Hart Middle School in Southeast.

“Part of that checklist [ensured] the principal, the teachers’ union building representative, LSAT chair, parent, student and custodial staff would go through each room of the building and use the checklist to make sure they’re in compliance. I don’t think that’s been done at all 115 schools, which is what the teachers’ union is requesting to verify from the chancellor,” he said.

Across the border in Northern Virginia, some parents in Arlington County continue to push for schools to reopen.

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán announced at a virtual school board meeting last week about 192 students enrolled in the career and technology education program can return the week of Feb. 2. Those students would work in one building.

Officials with Alexandria City Public Schools revised phased-in reopening plans for some students to also come back Tuesday.

Students in grades kindergarten through fifth who can return for in-person instruction include those with disabilities, early childhood special education and English language learners.

All remaining elementary students can return a week later on Feb. 9. Special needs students and English learners in middle and high school enrolled in citywide special education and language arts and math instruction programs may also return the same day.

The rest of the students and those in adult education can return Feb. 16.

“We are working tirelessly to try and get our students back as soon as we possibly can,” Superintendent Gregory Hutchins Jr. said in a video last week. These community metrics are just not affording us the opportunity right now.”

Sam P.K. Collins contributed to this story.

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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