On Thursday, a man who has already received a COVID-19 vaccination (as has his spouse), and whose workplace is elaborately prepped and scrubbed regularly at taxpayer expense (with plastic barriers placed between desks to minimize viral transmission), threatened to punish local school systems — many of which struggle to provide clean drinking water to students and staff, much less protective shields — for daring to resist a return to in-person instruction amid a deadly pandemic.
Unfortunately, this entitled individual happened to be the governor of Maryland, who seems to believe the best way to encourage Maryland’s public school systems to return to in-person instruction is to berate and threaten them, while also unhelpfully casting the whole matter of deciding when and how best or proceed as a battle between science and teachers unions. None of it is quite so simple.
[ Maryland Gov. Hogan calls on schools to bring students back to classrooms by March under hybrid learning plan ]
That’s not to suggest public school systems should not be working toward reopening. They should, and they are. And, as we’ve noted numerous times before, these are difficult choices. But don’t take our word for it. Talk to any school administrator, parent with children in school, system employee and, yes, teacher. Reopening schools poses challenges. But then, remote learning is not risk-free either, particularly given its potentially adverse effect on mental health and long-term impact on child development. And so, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website advisory on how to operate schools during the pandemic, “benefits of in-person schooling should be weighed against the risks of spreading COVID-19 in the school and community.” While the virus isn’t as likely to be transmitted through schools as it is in other gathering situations, schools are not risk-free. No place where people congregate indoors is.
But you wouldn’t know that from Gov. Larry Hogan’s sharp rebuke during which he said, falsely, that there is “no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools” and then threatened those boards with legal action. The governor and the state superintendent of schools also announced firing off a letter to the state’s largest teacher union warning that “roadblocks to resuming in-person instruction must cease.” As if the union’s concerns about teacher safety were just some sort of political power move. Or that a withering letter from a Republican governor would discourage a strike when the opposite is more likely true. After the governor’s announcement, State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon and a select group of educators received their COVID-19 vaccinations. Most teachers still have not.
[ Baltimore City Council members ask schools chief to reconsider reopening plan ]
Governor Hogan observed that President Joe Biden wants most K-8 schools reopened. That’s true. Over 100 days. Maryland’s governor expects them back in less than half that time. Right now, 10 of Maryland’s 24 subdivisions are offering some form of hybrid learning. That happens to include Baltimore City. This isn’t a Democratic versus Republican challenge. It’s not an urban versus rural problem. In reality, it’s complicated. Ventilation, sanitation, proper spacing, transportation, staffing — the challenges are numerous. But, as the CDC notes, the adverse consequences of continuing virtual learning, especially for younger kids, are serious, too. Teachers know this. Parents know this. What they are looking for is a helpful partnership with Annapolis and with the State Department of Education. Why the hectoring instead?
All we’re asking for is a return of the Larry Hogan of months ago with his empathy, nonpartisanship and “we’re all in this together” outlook regarding the pandemic. And, particularly given the state’s own shortcomings in vaccine distribution, one would expect just a little bit of humility, too. That’s the tone President Biden is clearly trying to strike on this subject. One of his first actions in office wasn’t to criticize schools that haven’t yet reopened or teachers who fear the risks involved, but to sign an executive order pledging assistance to them — including more personal protective gear and testing for schools. Acting tough on teachers unions probably warms the hearts of the anti-organized labor crowd, but is it helpful? It’s notable that Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost says state leaders have not talked to her about her membership’s concerns since August. Yikes.
[ Baltimore school board commissioner: Reopening schools puts families at risk ]
Finally, good on those school systems that are ready to return in the coming weeks, even if it’s in small groups or with only the youngest students. They authored a plan, reached a consensus, found the needed resources, developed stakeholder support. Most likely, they’ll be successful. Again, schools have not proven to be a “major driver of community spread.” But no two systems are exactly the same. Their circumstances vary. What they need from their governor and their superintendent is help, not threats. Just follow the “golden rule” of teaching: Treat students respectfully, ask questions politely and correct kindly. Oh, and getting those vaccinations out faster would sure help, too.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.