Carroll County’s legislative delegation proposed that the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) set concrete guidance for local school systems that will more quickly return students to the classroom.
A letter signed by District 5 Sen. Justin Ready and Dels. Susan Krebs, April Rose and Haven Shoemaker sent Monday to Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, noted the pitfalls of virtual learning and included suggestions about how to return to in-person learning.
“We want to see the conversation get moving for an opportunity for more concrete planning,” Ready said in an interview Tuesday.
The first recommendation in the letter is to set a “reasonable” in-school metric for COVID-19 infection rates.
The second is to choose a goal date when school systems should return to in-person learning, as well as a date for local school boards to submit plans for a “re-start.” It will give stakeholders confidence they are not in an “eternal limbo,” according to the letter.
The last proposal requests educators and staff be placed next on the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations. Salmon had earlier asked Maryland Department of Health to include teachers, school staff and early childcare professionals as a priority in the plan to vaccinate essential employees.
“It is essential that we return to full or hybrid instructional models for the overall wellbeing and success of our prekindergarten through grade 12 students. Prolonged school closures have resulted in our children experiencing diminished academic achievement and social-emotional distress participation,” Salmon said in a Dec. 15 news release.
Public school students in Carroll are learning virtually. Elementary and middle school students were in hybrid mode for about a month and high schoolers for about a week before the board of education voted to return to online learning in mid-November. A few hundred students, like those in special education and students at the Career and Technology Center, attend in person two or four days per week.
Carroll’s school board will meet Monday, Jan. 4 to discuss returning to hybrid learning as early as Jan. 7, the target date board members set in early December.
Ready said they wanted people to feel like there’s a plan they can see. He noted there is a lot of disagreement about returning to school, but that virtual learning is not going well for many students.
He also noted that Maryland does not have as many cases as other states in which kids are attending school in person. The letter states New York and Pennsylvania, which have more stringent economic restrictions, have higher coronavirus case rates and children in the classrooms.
“In some cases, they’ve done that by measuring infection rates in the school system as opposed to the rates in the community at large. Maryland has not taken that approach and because local health departments don’t want to adjust or edit the MSDE metrics and CDC guidelines, they won’t sign off on in-classroom plans,” the letter read.
MSDE encouraged school systems to have in-person learning plans with safety measures in place in July, according to Lora Rakowski, spokesperson for MSDE. The state’s education and health department stated the following month that systems should reevaluate its in-person plans if new case rates increase by 2 per 100,000 or positivity rates increase by 1.5% within two weeks.
“Although the positivity rate, along with the new case rate per 100,000 population, are core indicators as to whether schools should open or close, they are not intended to be absolute determinants,” Rakowski said.
Ready said the back to school issues do not have to be resolved in the next five days and he is not claiming to have all the answers, but that planning to return needs to begin now.
Krebs noted that private schools and daycares have successfully had students in-person and almost all the county leaders want a plan that does the same. Returning to hybrid, she said, would be a compromise. But she wants students attending full-time and in-person.
As in the letter, Shoemaker also noted the nearby states with in-person classes and high infection rates. He said there is also a concern for students with less access to the internet and that he doesn’t believe children are as susceptible to the virus as adults.
He added he doesn’t fault most of the teachers but some educators have an “all or nothing approach” and believe there should be zero cases before returning to the classroom.
“Our educators have been stuck in the middle with bargaining units lobbying to not go back indefinitely while many of the rank and file teachers long for a return to normalcy and full classroom participation,” the letter states.
Rose said she respects teachers, is appreciative of their hard work and noted Carroll County is one of the best systems in the state, but she does not appreciate teachers who travel to Ocean City or attend sporting events yet “don’t feel comfortable doing their job.”
“Quite frankly, the teachers union keeps saying ‘no, no, no,’” Rose said. “Then when? If not now, then when?”
Teresa McCulloh, president of Carroll County Education Association, said they have members who prefer to teach in person and the union supports them.
“We also have members who choose to teach virtually at home for various reasons. We support them as well,” she said. “The bottom line is, CCEA would like to ensure that the metrics are safe for all employees and students.”
Rose said the focus should be on the number of deaths and hospitalizations. She noted that every life is important and no death should be diminished, but the amount of Carroll countians who died of COVID-19 mostly lived in an elderly care facility.
Rose also noted concerns for students’ mental health and the seniors who will miss out on milestones like graduation if schools do not open up.
Carroll public schools had at least two outbreaks, or in-school coronavirus transmissions, since schools reopened to students this year. Cases in the community have increased and more than 100 new cases were announced by the health department on Tuesday.