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Time to call it: Maryland’s schools should remain closed through end of school year | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan announces a new series of executive orders including mandating face-masks in businesses and on mass transit on Wednesday, April. 15.
Gov. Larry Hogan announces a new series of executive orders including mandating face-masks in businesses and on mass transit on Wednesday, April. 15. (PAMELA WOOD)

While some are pushing states to reopen businesses mid-pandemic, we’d like to hear more about how parts of Maryland plan to stay closed — specifically its schools.

Governors in at least 24 other states have ordered their school buildings to remain empty through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, including nearby Pennsylvania and Virginia, and two more have recommended it. But the last Maryland kids and parents heard is that public schools are shuttered until April 24th — less than 10 days away.

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“We’re taking it on a week-by-week basis," Gov. Larry Hogan said last week. "We don’t know when this is going to peak and when we’re going to get back to normal.”

What we do know is that true “normal” is a long way away and that closing schools — and keeping them closed — is one of the most effective, non-pharmaceutical things a region can do to slow the spread of the disease. What’s more, proactive school closures that occur before there’s a case are markedly more effective than reactive, after-the-fact closures. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that school closures, combined with public gathering bans, during the 1918-’19 influenza pandemic led to significant reductions in the “excess death rate.” Areas that took early action had lower mortality overall, and the numbers got better the longer the duration of such interventions.

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If we open the schools now, we risk undoing all the gains we’ve already made toward flattening the novel coronavirus curve in Maryland, and we set ourselves up to have to re-close schools once infections occur.

In reality schools should be among the last institutions to reopen. With so many overcrowded classrooms, wandering fingers and forgetful young minds, it’s nearly impossible to practice social distancing in any meaningful way. A 2011 study published in the scientific journal PLoS One laid out a map for trying by using a computer model that limited student movement and staggered schedules; and it showed promise, but it assumed a facility with just 16 students per class. We don’t know where that fantasy school is, but its imaginary children are much more predictable than the real, touchy ones we’re familiar with. Sending kids back to school now will turn them into coronavirus carriers, bringing the virus back to their homes, families and communities.

Maryland Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, speaking to a group of lawmakers last week, said she’s ramping up the state’s online- and distance-learning capabilities in the event they’re needed beyond the initial closure — potentially into next winter. And we’re glad to hear it, though we’re not sure what she and Governor Hogan are waiting for to make the closure call into June.

The hardest part — the initial decision to close for any period — is already over. Parents and students have had since mid-March to adjust to the new reality, as difficult as it has been, and they understand what’s involved. They’ve been living it; it’s no longer an overwhelming unknown. And school systems have put education plans in place, though they are very much works in progress and as-yet no match for classroom learning. Still, they’re the best we’ve got in a bad situation. Parents and students need to know these efforts must be taken seriously and are likely to last, and they need the opportunity to put longer-term plans, training and resources in place.

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We’d like to see discussion of distance-learning opportunities and access to technology that stretched into the summer, in fact, knowing that finding care and camps might be difficult, or that families may be reluctant to send their children out of the house.

But first thing’s first. It’s unfair to string families and teachers along week by week when the only prudent choice is to keep school buildings closed into the summer. It’s time to make the call, Governor Hogan: Close Maryland schools for the remainder of the academic year.

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.

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