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Maryland schools to remain closed for the rest of academic year due to coronavirus pandemic

Maryland state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon speaks at a news conference at the State House in Annapolis on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Maryland state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon speaks at a news conference at the State House in Annapolis on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.(Pamela Wood/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s public school students will not return to classrooms for the rest of the academic year, officials announced Wednesday, making it one of the last states in the nation to make the call during the coronavirus pandemic.

Online and distance learning will continue while the State Department of Education readies a comprehensive long-term recovery plan called “Maryland Together: Recovery Plan for Education,” said Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools.

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“I am convinced this is the appropriate decision in order to continue to protect the health and safety of our students, educators, staff and all members of school communities throughout Maryland," Salmon said at a news conference Wednesday.

Public school students were last in their classrooms on March 13, as officials have kept kids out of their buildings in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. An initial two-week closure was extended through mid-May then extended again on Wednesday to cover the rest of the year.

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All of Maryland’s neighboring states and Washington, D.C. already cancelled in-person instruction for the rest of the year.

Only two other states haven’t canceled classes for the rest of the year. Wyoming schools are currently closed through May 15, and a few school districts in Montana are starting to reopen for in-person classes this week.

Salmon’s announcement followed “extensive discussions” between the board of education, the Maryland Health Department and public health experts advising Hogan.

The switch to online learning has been a challenge for teachers, students and parents. It has exposed a digital divide, with significant numbers of students lacking laptops or tablets and the internet access necessary to access online schoolwork.

In Baltimore, for example, nearly one-quarter of homes don’t have an internet connection. Some parents have used their cellphone data plans to power their kids’ devices.

By mid April — about a month into the school closures — tens of thousands of children had not logged into their online learning systems or picked up paper lesson packets, according to a survey of school superintendents.

Closing for the remainder of the year “is the right decision for the safety of students, educators and families. But it is sad because educators really miss their students. We want to have some closure,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing the majority of teachers in the state.

Bost said the inequalities that have become evident during the period since physical schools closed down have to be addressed in the future.

“This is going to be a very long period of time for them to lose progress in learning,” she said.

Parents and students have been anxiously awaiting some definitive ruling from the state for weeks, but Bost said she thought overall the state was right to make the decisions in a gradual manner.

“It was its own transition period. It eased us into it even though it created anxiety,” Bost said.

The final decision was welcomed by Baltimore City school parent Joe Kane.

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“It allows parents to move forward during the COVID-19. Our routine has been day by day. Now we can begin to adjust our schedules. It is adjusting to what this new reality is,” he said.

His family is considering making their children work intensively for three days in a row and then give them two days off.

Children still have a lot of concerns about their futures, he said, particularly if they are moving from elementary to middle school or if they are juniors in high school.

“They are still looking for guidance as to how this will play out. For them, it is more getting some understanding of what their future holds,” Kane said.

Salmon emphasized that the school recovery plan does not make any mandates that school systems must follow. Rather, the plan outlines a set of options for school systems to consider.

When schools finally do resume in-person classes, they could opt to reopen on a staggered schedule, to small groups or on a case-by-case basis depending on a student’s needs. A full return of the study body to in-person instruction would likely come during the final stage of the governor’s three-phase plan for relaxing restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus, Salmon said.

The school board plan identifies several sample schedules and calendar ideas that dovetail with Gov. Larry Hogan’s recovery plan for the state. Officials said they did not expect the re-opening of schools to be included in the first stage of that plan.

Even as students will remain out of their classrooms as a protective measure, Hogan announced the easing of restrictions beginning Thursday at 7 a.m. on a few outdoor activities.

The governor amended his stay-at-home order to allow for individual and small group sports such as golfing and tennis, outdoor fitness instruction, recreational fishing and hunting, recreational boating and horseback riding.

Maryland’s beaches and state parks will also open Thursday for walking and exercise. Local governments will have the flexibility to take similar actions at their discretion, Hogan said.

Hogan also said hospitals and licensed healthcare professionals can resume elective and non-emergency procedures.

Providers should exercise judgment in determining what procedures are appropriate to perform, Hogan said.

The Republican governor’s stay-at-home order remains in effect, requiring most nonessential businesses to remain closed and limiting residents’ travel to only trips to procure food or supplies or to get outdoor exercise. Residents are required to wear masks in stores, on buses and trains or whenever social distancing is difficult to maintain.

Hogan previously laid out a “roadmap to recovery” for gradually easing restrictions once the state experiences a flattening or decline in key coronavirus trends, such as hospitalizations and use of intensive care units.

Hogan said he may soon be ready to lift the stay-at-home order across the state as the rate of hospitalizations and the number of patients in intensive care have steadily decreased. The governor said he needed “several more days of good metrics” to launch the first stage of his three-stage recovery plan for the state.

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“I realize that these are only small steps and that they may be of little comfort to those who are out of work and who are struggling financially,” Hogan said. “But it is thanks to all of you and your incredible sacrifices that we are making great progress.”

As of Wednesday morning, there have been 28,163 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, as well as 1,338 confirmed deaths and 99 deaths attributed to the virus but lacking a confirmed lab test.

Hogan also announced on Wednesday that the state will begin universal testing at poultry plants on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the coronavirus has spread rapidly.

The state reported 1,707 coronavirus patients were hospitalized as of Wednesday morning, compared to 1,693 on Tuesday. Of those, 584 are in intensive care, up from 573 on Tuesday.

More than half of the state’s fatalities are among residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, according to state data.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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