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Maryland teachers don’t need platitudes or press conferences, they need a real reopening plan | COMMENTARY

A vehicle participating in the Harford County Education Association car caravan showing support for teachers rolls by the Harford County Public Schools A.A. Roberty building on Hickory Avenue in Bel Air Monday evening as a group of folks with Reopen Harford County Schools and other reopen schools groups gather outside the building during the Board of Education meeting.
A vehicle participating in the Harford County Education Association car caravan showing support for teachers rolls by the Harford County Public Schools A.A. Roberty building on Hickory Avenue in Bel Air Monday evening as a group of folks with Reopen Harford County Schools and other reopen schools groups gather outside the building during the Board of Education meeting. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

There are few easy answers during this pandemic. No one has a crystal ball for what’s next. The public health decisions are complex and almost never have unanimous bodies of research behind them. The pandemic’s impact on our communities is different, and we must resist the temptation to universalize our experience.

What is universal is that we’re all frustrated, tired and ready for the pandemic to be over.

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And while it may have been seductive to hear Gov. Larry Hogan declare that “there is no public health reason” to prevent fully reopening school buildings and that “the science is clear,” that doesn’t make it true. The research is far from settled, with many studies warning of the risks of reopening buildings during periods of high community transmission, as we have now. Telling educators that they shouldn’t worry about being vaccinated before returning — just a week after advancing them to Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout — doesn’t make educators feel at ease. It makes them anxious and worried about the changing directives. All this results in frustration and confusion for parents. Who wouldn’t feel that way when the guidance we hear from too many of our leaders seems to shift and to be driven more by politics and blame than science and responsibility?

We don’t need platitudes or press conferences. We need a substantive plan of action that reopens school buildings safely, sustainably and expeditiously. It is encouraging to see the Biden administration approach this with real plans, realistic expectations and recognition of the complexities. We should expect the same of our state leaders.

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Baseline expectations for what we can do in Maryland should include:

Accelerated vaccination availability for educators. Educators were wisely moved up to Phase 1B for vaccine distribution, however, many educators, especially in more urban districts, are being told that doses are unavailable and they must wait. Vaccine distribution to locals must be improved; the sooner educators receive their vaccine doses, the safer and more sustainable any reopening of buildings will be.

Reasonable safety standards in school buildings. Adequate ventilation, personal protective equipment, regular testing and contact tracing, and social distancing are necessities. The Centers for Disease Control, Department of Health, Maryland State Department of Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have set standards for safe and healthy working and learning conditions. Schools must have the resources and expectation to implement these standards.

Addressing educator workload. Educators have stepped up in a big way and their workload has skyrocketed due to the shifting modes of instruction and the challenges of reaching all students. Moving to hybrid and asking teachers to conduct in-person and virtual instruction simultaneously is not sustainable, and both students and educators lose. Additional staffing supports must be funded to meet academic and increased social emotional needs of students.

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A long-term plan to address inequities. The pandemic has had disparate impacts, with Black and brown communities hardest hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout. Recovering from the pandemic demands even greater urgency in righting those wrongs. This won’t be achieved through a one-year infusion of aid to our schools, though it is a start. Short-term recovery must include expanded summer and after-school programs and tutoring, enhanced broadband functionality, and increased mental health personnel. We can begin to fundamentally close gaps in equity and opportunity by overriding the governor’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. This is the long-term plan that will expand community schools and wraparound services, career technical education, individualized support for struggling learners, mental health and special education resources, pre-kindergarten and more. It will deliver targeted support to our communities that are struggling the most — and have heavy overlap with those most impacted by the pandemic. It is a plan that is even more necessary in the wake of the pandemic.

Governor Hogan has said, “We are all in this together, and we will only get through this if we work together.” That must be more than a slogan. We must be moved to action that doesn’t promise easy answers, but long-term solutions. We must do less blaming of each other and more building up of one another. We must take the reasonable, responsible and evenhanded steps that our students, educators and families need us to in order to safely and sustainably return to school buildings across the state.

Cheryl Bost (cbost@mseanea.org) is president of the Maryland State Education Association. Willie Flowers (wflowers@phcha.org) is the president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference. John King is the former U.S. Secretary of Education and founder of Strong Future Maryland. Gustavo Torres (gtorres@wearecasa.org) is the executive director of Casa de Maryland.

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