Maryland’s superintendent of schools said during a meeting Friday that she’s received hundreds of emails from parents of Harford County schoolchildren and intends to work with the school system to get kids back to class more than once a week.
Karen Salmon said that 6 feet of physical distance between students was not a requirement to bring them back to school, emphasizing that the key words in the latest guidance from the state are “to the extent possible.”
“It’s common sense really, to the extent possible we can distance by 6 feet we do, but when we can’t, we’re masking and washing our hands, etc.,” she said.
Salmon’s comments came during a virtual meeting of the Eastern Shore delegation, when asked a question by Del. Mike Griffith, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties.
Griffith, who has been among those calling for students to be in classrooms since the summer, said Harford County Public Schools officials have pointed to state-issued guidance to prevent students from returning to in-person learning.
“Our superintendent and Board of Education has been saying the metrics has been preventing them from getting kids back in school,” Griffith said. “Since the announcement, now they’ve pivoted to the 6-foot rule is now the reason we can’t have kids back in school.”
On Jan. 21, Salmon and Gov. Larry Hogan called on all Maryland school districts to return students to the classroom by the beginning of March.
State guidance for a return to school was also updated, removing COVID-19 transmission thresholds that had prompted many districts, including Harford, to move to all-virtual learning when those key metrics spiked in November.
“It’s been my frustration that sometimes, we’ve had various entities use those metrics to keep our schools closed, rather than to get them open, which is what they were intended to do,” Salmon said Friday.
Harford Superintendent Sean Bulson announced Monday the school system would bring back students once-a-week for in-person instruction as part of a hybrid learning plan, which has received pushback from the community, but reiterated the need to following health requirements in the guidance including distancing and masking.
On Wednesday, the school board voted to buy more than 31,000 plastic shields for student desks so students could sit closer together and potentially allow them to return twice a week, although Bulson would not commit to a two-day hybrid.
Griffith asked Salmon if there was any intention to further modify state guidance or allow some wiggle room to get students back into schools.
The state superintendent noted that when visiting schools that had brought students back in the fall, they were not always keeping 6 feet of distance because it’s not always feasible, “but to the extent possible, we are distancing kids, as they come and go.
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“When we’re in a career and technology center and they’re working on installing a brake, the kids are there with the brake installing it,” Salmon said. “They’re masked, they’re washing their hands, the other mitigation factors are very important, that can be maintained all the time.”
“And think about our child care centers,” she continued. “We know our kids are not walking around with yardsticks on either side of them to make sure they’re distanced 6 feet. It’s to the extent possible.”
Salmon said she’d received over 400 emails in the past two days from parents about the HCPS plan and she had “plans to work with that particular school system,” but did not elaborate what those plans might be.
In a text message, Bulson said he had not heard from Salmon as of 2:30 p.m. Friday.
“We continue to use the state’s guidance as a resource to help us return students to in-person learning in as safe a matter as possible,” he wrote in the text, but did not elaborate further.
Griffith said Salmon’s statements stand on their own. In his view, the 6-foot social distancing guidelines are being used inappropriately to keep kids out of school and the state superintendent’s statement cleared the air, he said.
“With Dr. Salmon’s statement today I just do not see any justification to not get kids back in school more than one day a week,” he said. “At some point the responsibility lays at the feet of the superintendent and the Board of Education.”