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Howard schools superintendent: ‘We are ready’ for students, staff to return to classrooms | COMMENTARY

As we welcome Howard students and staff back into our school buildings, I want to assure every stakeholder that we are ready.

Every inch of our school buildings have been evaluated and prepared for the return of students and staff and align to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 health guidelines, and I can state with certainty that our buildings are ready.

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We have plenty of personal protective equipment on hand for our students and staff, response and notification protocols prepared, and a strong partnership with the Howard County Health Department to provide guidance and support in responding to positive cases or other concerns as they arise. I know that our staff are ready.

I have been an educator for over 35 years, including teaching middle school mathematics and science, an elementary and high school principal, and serving as a superintendent since 2005. Although I have dealt with some extremely challenging situations during that time, I can’t imagine having to teach during a pandemic. Our educators are truly amazing.

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It has been nearly a year since our school buildings first closed, and educators have had to navigate the immediate shift to virtual instruction, pivot to a more comprehensive delivery of instruction to start the 2020-21 school year, followed by small group implementation, and now a shift to hybrid instruction. They have proved to be resilient, courageous and true professionals who constantly prioritize their students. I have been so impressed with how our teachers have found innovative and creative ways to instruct and engage students, regardless of the educational format.

Additionally, I want to specifically lift up the many staff members who have been working on-site since the start of this pandemic, including our food services, custodial and operations staff, as well as those in several other groups. They have quietly been superheroes, continuing to serve the needs of our students day in and day out.

Now is the right time to begin the return to classrooms. Our county COVID-19 health metrics continue to trend in the right direction and are aligning with the CDC’s guidance regarding when it is appropriate to return to in-person instruction. I constantly worry about the disconnect between educators and students that occurs in a virtual environment. Having students physically present in the school can make a huge difference in fostering a positive relationship between a student and their teacher or other staff member. I have worried about the mental well-being of students and staff alike throughout these difficult months.

I understand that fear and uncertainty exists right now. I have read it in emails, I have heard it at Board of Education meetings, and I have seen it in the community. These feelings are only natural, but I believe that as we take this next step toward normalcy, our students, staff and families will begin to experience the great benefits of being back in person, and fears will ease as they realize that the comprehensive health and safety measures that are in place are effective.

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I have heard from colleagues and families in other areas where students have returned to classrooms that, while the hybrid instructional model is far from ideal, it is a significant improvement over fully virtual learning, especially for those students who have been impacted the most.

By following the safety guidelines from the health department and CDC — using personal protective equipment, practicing regular hand washing and social distancing — we can reopen in a safe manner.

I am immensely grateful to the county health department and Johns Hopkins Medicine for providing vaccines to our staff. It is unfortunate and concerning that they have been receiving fewer doses from the state recently, and it is critical that these entities continue to receive additional doses of vaccines so they may be able to vaccinate all educators as quickly as possible.

I remain hopeful that vaccinations may soon be produced at greater volume and distributed more quickly to our local health providers.

As we consider the implications for health and well-being associated with in-person learning, it is important to remember that many students are vulnerable to many hazards that are unrelated to COVID-19 when they don’t have access to the services that are provided in school. I am relieved that students returning to school buildings will have access to in-person counseling, trusted adults and other supports that staff are able to provide when students are in school. I am also thankful that students who wish to remain virtual may still do so and continue to receive instruction and support from their teachers and school staff.

I want every Howard public school student, staff member and family to know we will emerge from this pandemic, on a day not far from now, when we’ll be able to come together and celebrate the resilience, courage, empathy and grace that our great community has demonstrated throughout this unprecedented time. I am deeply grateful to each and every stakeholder.

I am excited to welcome many of our students back and know that many have been waiting for this day so they can see each other, but also receive the necessary instruction and support they need in person.

I welcome students, staff and families back to our school buildings. It’s a great day.

The writer is the superintendent of the Howard County Public School System.

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