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Maryland officials say all public school systems meet new set of benchmarks for some in-person instruction

Gov. Larry Hogan stopped just short of ordering all local school boards to develop plans to reopen schools this fall, but strongly encouraged them to do so saying that all 24 school districts meet a new set of state-created benchmarks that indicate it is safe to reopen for some in-person instruction.

All school districts in the state are starting the school year with all instruction online, but 16 have indicated that they will attempt to bring some groups of students back beginning as early as mid-September. Eight districts, including Baltimore and Harford counties, have said they will remain closed for the first semester, which ends in January.

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The Republican governor’s directive comes with most Maryland school districts beginning classes within the next two weeks. All Baltimore-area public school districts plan to start Sept. 8.

“There is broad and overwhelming agreement among public health leaders, education experts and parents that finding a way to begin safely returning children to classrooms must be a top priority,” Hogan said at a news conference Thursday.

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“Some of the county school boards have not attempted to develop any safe reopening plans that would bring any kids back for any form of in-person instruction,” he said. “This is simply not acceptable.”

Maryland school superintendent Karen Salmon said she was “strongly encouraging” school districts to reevaluate their instruction plans at the end of the school year’s first quarter, in early November. She announced $10 million in grants will be available to school systems that choose to bring students back for in-person instruction.

Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy health secretary, outlined benchmarks that school systems should use to determine whether it is safe to open for some level of in-person instruction.

The new guidelines say jurisdictions should have the ability to hold at least some in-person instruction as long as guidance is followed on mask use and social distancing if their testing positivity rate is under 5% and their new case rate is less than 15 per 100,000 people .

If the positivity rate were to rise by 1.5 percentage points within two weeks, schools would have to consider reverting to more hybrid or online instruction.

Chan said decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a school. The school system would need to partner with local health officials to decide whether mitigation measures would be sufficient to protect students or whether a classroom or an entire school would need to be shut down.

Hogan’s remarks drew immediate condemnation from the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. Hogan and Salmon had “abdicated responsibility for creating reopening standards,” the union said in statement.

Cheryl Bost, president of the union, said state officials should not have waited until Aug. 27 to lay out new requirements, including a minimum number of hours of live online instruction from teachers and metrics for reopening. Teachers need to be assured that school systems have rapid testing, funds for personal protective equipment and ventilation systems that have been certified as effective.

“If they are going to force people into schools, we expect all of that to be in place,” Bost said.

Hogan said the state does not have the authority to order local districts to reopen, but it would put pressure on local school boards.

“We’re going to do what we can within the law,” Hogan said, “but we’re not going to change state law to take away the authority of school boards.”

Asked about pressure school boards have received from teachers unions, Hogan said school boards need to listen to parents and stakeholders when deciding whether to reopen instead of just one “personal interest group.”

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“Finding a way to return children to classrooms must be a priority,” he said. “There is no substitute for in-person instruction.”

The governor said it was unacceptable that some school districts have not considered plans to reopen.

School district leaders reacted quickly to Hogan’s announcement with some districts seeming to change course and others angered.

The Baltimore City school system said in a statement that it shares Hogan’s “desire to reopen schools fully, by taking steps gradually as health and safety conditions permit.” The school system said it was continuing to explore ways to bring students back “while protecting students, families and staff.”

In Harford County, where legislators had begun pushing school leaders to reconsider plans to keep classes online until the end of the first semester, Superintendent Sean W. Bulson said the county school system “is absolutely committed to revisiting more in-person instruction prior to the end of the first quarter and we’ll be having those conversations in September.”

Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard county school systems as well as Baltimore City had begun making plans to bring in small groups of students in the first or second quarter, particularly special education students, career and technology students, and those who do not have access to the internet.

Howard County Superintendent Michael J. Martirano said Thursday his county will evaluate in-person instruction for the second semester on October 22.

“We will review this new information and guidance as soon as the details are provided to superintendents,” he said.

Anne Arundel County Superintendent George Arlotto said in a statement the school system “is continuing to plan for ... a safe hybrid learning model across our county as quickly as possible. That will not happen overnight, and it will require the collaborative efforts and willingness of our families, our teachers and other employees, and our contractors.”

After the Hogan announcement, Arlotto said his administration met with the county health department and decided the county does not meet the metrics and conditions provided by state officials to safely reopen.

Arlotto said earlier he is still waiting to confirm staffing and other logistics like transportation to offer children with disabilities a chance to return to the three centers that serve them for limited in-person instruction.

Carroll County Superintendent Steven Lockard said his district hopes to begin a hybrid schedule that would include some in-person and some online instruction by the end of October. The district plans to bring back small groups of students toward the beginning of the school year.

“We would love to be able to further build on that with additional small groups of students as we are able,” he said.

Montgomery County education officials said they were “deeply disappointed by the last-minute announcement of this critical information for school systems.”

“City Schools believes in-person teaching and learning is best for our students. We share Gov. Hogan’s desire to reopen schools fully, by taking steps gradually as health and safety conditions permit. In alignment with that vision, City Schools will continue to explore the best ways locally to do that while protecting those at the heart of our mission - our students, families, and staff.”

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Late Thursday night, Baltimore County Superintendent Darryl L. Williams said the system “will immediately begin to look at our plan to incorporate already created hybrid models that include a phased-in plan for small groups of students to return to our buildings.” He said a gradual phase-in would take time.

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But County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. criticized Hogan and Salmon for failing to give guidance sooner. “Now, days before schools open the Governor and Superintendent Salmon have finally released guidance, while dangling $10 million to convince historically underfunded systems to open—whether they’re ready or not. That’s not leadership. Maryland students and families deserve better,” he said in a tweet.

The announcement was yet another change in direction for parents, teachers and students. After a spring when few were satisfied with the online instruction, parents and students were looking forward to a new school year with some in-person instruction. That changed rapidly in July when cases started to rise, both nationally and in Maryland, and teachers began expressing concern about returning to classrooms.

By the beginning of August, nearly all the state’s school systems had announced they would begin the school year online.

Children in public schools last attended in-person classes in mid-March, when Salmon ordered schools to close down due to the pandemic.

School superintendents from across Maryland have asked state health officials for more guidance on when it will be safe to allow children and teachers back into school buildings. In a letter earlier this month, they asked for benchmarks they can monitor to inform their reopening decisions.

State lawmakers also faulted the Department of Health for not providing standards for school systems to follow.

“We’re hopeful they will reevaluate based on these metrics and feel more confident reopening,” Salmon said.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters S. Wayne Carter Jr., Brandi Bottalico, Brian Compere and Jacob Calvin Meyer contributed to this article.

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