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Superintendents ask Maryland health officials for clearer rules on when students can return to classrooms

Maryland’s 24 school superintendents voted unanimously Friday to request that state health officials create clear benchmarks for deciding when students could safely return to school buildings.

While some school districts, like Baltimore City’s, have begun working with health experts to create such plans, the superintendents say it is imperative that there be common rules across the state.

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The superintendents are asking for metrics that could help them gauge the spread of coronavirus. For instance, some states have set tiers based on the number of new cases per 10,000 people in those districts. The fewer cases, the more those school districts are allowed to operate normally. Maryland’s superintendents want health officials to set similar specific targets for when students could be allowed in buildings.

The president of the superintendents association, Kelly Griffith, said that doesn’t mean that every school system would be in the same phase; rather, it may mean that one school system with a low infection rate would be open for in-person classes while another across the state would not because rates were higher there.

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Griffith said the superintendents will also ask the department for protocols for personal protective equipment and contract tracing.

“I am hopeful that in a time of such uncertainty, in a time that is unprecedented, that our health department will step up to help our education leaders do their jobs, safely, efficiently and effectively,” Griffith said. Maryland State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon was on vacation and not at the meeting with superintendents Friday morning, but Griffith said she will inform Salmon about the requests.

When asked whether the Maryland Department of Health would respond to the request, spokesman Charles Gischlar, said, “We are in the process of finalizing school guidance and look forward to working with our health officers on next steps.”

Legislative leaders have criticized the Maryland State Department of Education for failing to provide clearer guidelines to school systems during the pandemic. The department disagreed Thursday, saying they have issued guidelines. Gov. Larry Hogan has a three-phase re-opening plan, although it does not detail at what the virus transmission rate should be for schools to open classrooms.

Across the nation, many school systems are starting the year with classes online, including most in Maryland. However, superintendents in the Baltimore area are looking into bringing back small numbers of students to school buildings. In Harford County, for instance, officials are creating so-called learning centers where students can come for hours to connect to the internet, do homework or sign on to their live online classes.

And Baltimore City, among others, is considering whether some special education students, English language learners and those who have trouble learning online could be given the option of returning to school buildings. Superintendents say the public discussion has too often been focused on whether schools should be all online or not, rather than considering hybrid models that might be done safely

But many questions remain for school leaders about what testing measures should be in place, the quantity of personal protective gear that should be available and how low the level of the disease should be before bringing students and teachers back into buildings.

In a call with legislative leaders on Thursday, the superintendents and legislators were unified on the need for some statewide metrics to guide systems. If the state is unwilling to create the metrics, then legislators hope the superintendents will work with health experts from local universities, as well as county health officers, to do it themselves.

States across the country have been creating guidelines, including West Virginia, Minnesota and California.

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