On March 13, 2020, the emerging COVID-19 threat required all schools in Maryland to abruptly close their doors and immediately transition to virtual instruction. Eighteen months later, we are still in the midst of a pandemic and seeking ways to safely reopen our classrooms to all students and staff and, more importantly, keep them open.
I have not wavered in my conviction that in-person instruction is best for student learning and well-being. While some students are able to thrive in a virtual environment, there is no good substitute for in-person instruction for the majority of students.
As we prepare to welcome students and staff back to school buildings on the first day of school, my efforts, energies and priorities are focused on maintaining healthy school environments so our students and staff may remain in person for the duration of the school year. As a school system, we have decisively taken all necessary efforts to realize this goal.
On Aug. 12, I announced that the Howard County Public School System will require all employees to provide proof of full vaccination or undergo regular COVID-19 testing. This was not a decision I made lightly, and I first consulted with our general counsel and school system leadership on the operational impact. Additionally, I sought input from the Howard County health officer and leaders of our employee bargaining units, who all expressed their support.
A fully vaccinated workforce will provide an additional layer of protection beyond the universal indoor masking that is now required in all county public schools and offices, regardless of vaccination status — a decision that was made with the strong endorsement of the Howard County Health Department, which referenced the guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maryland Department of Health and American Academy of Pediatrics.
Though many people have understandably become exhausted with masks, covering up is a small inconvenience in a greater effort to keep school buildings healthy and open because masking has been proven to be highly effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
We know vaccinations and masking are our most effective tools in confronting this pandemic. As a community, it is our responsibility to keep our students safe. I feel strongly that these precautions are the best ways to keep schools open and students in school.
Our levels of protection don’t stop there, and the school system continues to implement several mitigation strategies to maintain healthy school environments. Masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment are available for students and staff who require them; plexiglass was installed last school year and will remain in places; and custodial staff will continue to complete daily cleaning and disinfecting in alignment with CDC guidance. Additionally, MERV-13 filters have been installed in every school, and maintenance has been performed on all HVAC units to ensure they are operating at peak efficiency.
Students, staff and families throughout our county are eagerly looking forward to getting back to school. Our school system and entire community must commit to making all necessary efforts to keep school doors open for students and staff. Vaccines, masks and proven mitigation strategies will effectively move us out of the pandemic. Empathy, understanding and grace will allow us to move forward together and ensure every child has access to a learning environment where they will achieve and thrive.
The writer is the superintendent of the Howard County Public School System.