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Anne Arundel health officer recommends private schools not start in person, says county must approve reopening plans

County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman is asking private schools in Anne Arundel County not to offer in-person instruction for the coming fall semester and has set a number of steps they must meet if they do choose to open.

In a letter sent to the county’s private schools Wednesday, he said the schools must submit a plan to keep students and facility safe to the department for review. Anne Arundel County Public Schools have decided to start the fall semester online.

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“Currently, community based transmission of COVID-19 remains elevated posing a significant risk of in-school spread of COVID-19. At this time the Anne Arundel County Department of Health does not recommend that nonpublic schools in the county open for in-person instruction to start the 2020-2021 school year,” he wrote in a letter dated Wednesday and sent to the schools.

For schools that still plan on reopening with in-person instruction, the department will review and approve plans 14 days in advance of the first day. Schools that are already opened are required to send a reopening plan within three days of receiving the letter.

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From there, the department will review plans to make sure they follow guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Maryland State Department of Education.

The department will consider health measures like face coverings, screening for symptoms, social distancing in classrooms and common areas, transportation and communication if someone tests positive with the coronavirus, Kalyanaraman said in an interview.

“Our assumption is that if you have a plan in place that you want to start opening in-person, then you should have a written safety plan. We want to review it and make sure it is fine,” he said.

“Everything in COVID has shown us that it is far better to figure it out beforehand than to wonder why there are cases of transmission, after the fact.”

Schools will also need to report staff or students who test positive with the coronavirus to the department for contact tracing, according to the letter.

Gov. Larry Hogan blocked jurisdictions from prohibiting private schools from reopening in early August. His order was issued after he disagreed with a Montgomery County decision to shutter private, as well as public schools.

He revised an emergency order that had granted the jurisdictions such power, but didn’t alter their ability to make such decisions for businesses and other types of organizations.

Thursday, House Republicans reached out to Hogan and asked him to block the health department request.

“This action is a clear violation of the health policy of the state that prohibits the blanket closure of nonpublic schools,” House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, R-Pasadena, wrote in a statement released by the Republican caucus.

“While the letter may initially look like a series of recommendations, it is a direct prohibition against opening these schools. The requirements for opening are vague and arbitrary and no other private establishment is burdened with anything similar.”

Before sending out the letter, Kalyanaraman said his department has been in contact with the Maryland Department of Health.

“Honestly, I don’t think this is going to be an issue at the end of the day unless the school hasn’t thought out how they want to reopen.”

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Kalyanaraman said the overall goal in reviewing plans is to not stop private schools from opening but to ensure the safety of students and staff. For schools that do not get approved, the department will work to help modify reopening plans until it is safe, he said.

He emphasized that there must be safety considerations of staff as well as students.

A number of private schools in Anne Arundel have announced bringing students back to campus after developing plans based off task force recommendations, committees and survey input from school communities.

Officials at Rockbridge Academy in Crownsville, set to open back up this fall, said the facilities and class size allow for students and teachers to gather in classrooms.

“Regarding the letter from the Department of Health, we still think it is feasible and critical to their development to have children educated in the classroom if at all possible. Because nonpublic schools typically have a smaller constituency and greater flexibility than public schools, opening in the current circumstances and having the ability to pivot quickly to full remote learning is more attainable,” Headmaster Roy Griffith wrote in an email.

The school will submit the reopening plan to the department and will work together to “respond to the pandemic in a safe and prudent manner,” he said.

Other schools already have submitted reopening plans. Annapolis Area Christian School’s plan, which school Superintendent Rick Kempton said would “hit all the bells and whistles” of the requirements, has already been approved.

Students are set to return to campus, with an option for online learning, through the end of the first quarter, said school spokesperson Harriet Petrocelli in an email.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which oversees Catholic schools including Spalding High and St. Mary’s, has a plan reviewed by the CDC and the Maryland Department of Health and will submit the plan to the county, spokesperson Lauren Robinson wrote in an email.

“We have no problem sharing our reopening plans with the county health department, but it is irresponsible of them to be imposing this requirement at such a late date,” Robinson said.

At Severn School, the goal is to return students to campus with a hybrid model. The plan was sent to the health department, according to the school spokesperson. A final decision will be made on Aug. 24.

For Key School, the reopening plan has been sent to the health department for approval, according to the school spokesperson.

At St. Anne’s School of Annapolis, students can either return back to classrooms or rely on online learning. Head of School Andrea Weiss wrote in an email statement.

At The Harbour School, a school for special needs students that accepts placement from county public schools, Director Linda Jacobs said students will have in-person instruction for two days of the week and then online learning for the other three days.

The plan has been sent to the county health department and Jacobs hopes to start up the hybrid program on Monday.

“It is a very careful balance between the mental health of our children and the physical health. We value them both and we think it is important that both be valued. We think the hybrid program strikes a really good balance,” she said.

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Temperatures will be checked and if students have an elevated temperature then they will be isolated and a parent will be contacted, she said. Students and staff will be asked to wear masks, the school will have medical filters applied to heat pumps and classrooms will be cleaned every day, Jacobs said.

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