Local school superintendents, union leaders and health officials told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday they could use more help from the state as they make plans to reopen schools.
Members of a Maryland Senate committee chastised Gov. Larry Hogan and State School Superintendent Karen Salmon for failing to provide assistance to local superintendents and health officials to guide them during the pandemic. School leaders said statewide health and safety guidelines would help the public feel more confident about reopening.
In addition, some superintendents said they would like the state to make bulk purchases for schools of protective equipment, give more flexibility in testing in the spring and provide more money to superintendents struggling with the costs of reopening.
Here are five issues that school leaders and lawmakers say still lack answers:
Contact tracing and testing
With school systems reopening buildings in the past few weeks, Montgomery County schools superintendent Jack Smith said there’s a need for a state plan for contact tracing and testing of students and staff. “We need to do things in a uniform and consistent way in testing and contact tracing,” he said.
Baltimore CEO Sonja Santelises said it doesn’t make sense that she is negotiating contracts for testing and contact tracing with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland when her counterparts around the state have the same needs.
“The patchwork approach is making it more challenging to return,” Santelises said.
What defines a COVID-19 outbreak in a school?
School superintendents said they need a clear definition that is uniform across the state of what constitutes an outbreak or cluster in a school. For instance, if there are two cases in a school but the individuals haven’t come in contact, is that an outbreak? Does it have to include the spread of the illness in a school?
Harford County Superintendent Sean Bulson said he needs clarity on what to do when there is an outbreak. Should the system send classrooms home, or close a whole school?
A public dashboard reporting school cases
Legislators, educators and the teachers unions agreed on the need for the state to report school-specific data on coronavirus cases.
So far Maryland health officials are refusing to release a complete list of schools where cases of COVID-19 have emerged, even though they are collecting the data. As a parent, Sen. Katie Hester, a Democrat representing Carroll and Howard counties, said she wants transparency so she can make determinations about whether she wants her children in a school setting.
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“I need to feel like I am getting good information,” she said. “If we have gotten that in the past for nursing homes, why are schools any different?”
David Lever, a member of a group of architects, engineers and school facility planners, who released a report on how to reopen schools safely, said a specific set of health metrics is still lacking. The state metrics released in September, he said, are too broad. Every school system in the state qualifies to reopen under them although there is a wide variance in the prevalence and spread of coronavirus in each area of the state.
The state needs common parameters, he said. School superintendents asked the Maryland State Department of Education for such metrics in June, and then asked the state health officials in August.
Facility personnel in school, often working with limited resources, need guidance on what the most effective ways are to provide schools with clean air, disinfection and cleaning.
With a vaccine for the virus possibly only months away, school officials said they have asked Salmon to provide them with a state plan that details whether children will be vaccinated in schools and whether a coronavirus vaccine will be required for students to attend in-person classes.