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School Superintendents Say State Not Leading On How To Reopen Schools

Seth Sawyers/flickr

Public school students in central Maryland are starting the school year with a virtual learning model.

Thursday, three school superintendents laid out what needs to happen before those students can return to the classroom in a virtual discussion that got off to a rocky start with some technical difficulties.

State Senate President Bill Ferguson, who was hosting the roundtable, said it provided a glimpse of what students and teachers are facing this fall.

“We’re going to make it work,” he said. “This is the joy, the perfect example of the challenge of virtual learning.”

Once the problems were worked out, the superintendents from Baltimore City and Montgomery and Talbot Counties said they need the state education department to take the lead and offer specific thresholds for reopening schools. Montgomery School Superintendent Jack Smith said his county is looking at data like percentage of people tested and community spread.

“We think it makes sense to use the same ones in Talbot County, Baltimore City, Somerset County, St. Mary’s County, Cecil County, Anne Arundel County,” Smith said.

State Senator Paul Pinsky, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was also on the call. He suggested that if the state education department does not offer school opening guidelines, then the 24 local school systems could band together and do it instead.

“The reason for that is if one county has one set of metrics and another county has another, there will be finger pointing,” he said. “One group of parents will say, ‘you’re bringing my children back when it’s less safe.’”

A state education department spokeswoman emailed a statement that said statewide guidance does exist in the governor’s roadmap to recovery.

According to the statement, “Local school systems can be more restrictive as needed. As Maryland includes rural, urban, and suburban communities and variable levels of COVID positivity, the recovery plan provides the necessary guardrails and flexibility for local school systems to customize plans to best fit individual communities."

The superintendents also said there needs to be rapid COVID-19 testing available before students come back.

Baltimore City held face-to-face summer school for small groups this year, and  School CEO Sonja Santelises said at one point, they thought an employee might have contracted COVID. It turned out the employee did not, but it took 10 to 12 days to get the test results back.

“If we had kind of a two day turnaround even, even if we could shrink that window, the ability to keep learning intact in person, is much easier,” she said.

Then there is sustaining deep cleaning of schools once students return, and making sure there is enough personal protective equipment to get through the school year. Santelises said it goes beyond masks and sanitizers. For instance, school secretaries need to have desk shields.

“They need to have some partition in the same way that when you go to a bank now, a doctor’s office now, the receptionist is behind plexiglass,” Santelises said.

Talbot County Superintendent Kelly Griffith said she is concerned that state budget cuts could be coming, and that would make it even harder to sustain health and safety in school buildings.

“We don’t know how long this is going to last,” Griffith said. “Everyone wants to say ‘January we’re all going to be good. The vaccine’s going to be here and we’re going to be good.’ We don’t know that.”

Reopening school buildings is a serious, emotional issue for parents. They worry about their children’s health, while struggling to juggle the demands of both their work and their children being home.

Smith said he hears it from both sides.

“There are parents who have written to me or said to me ‘I’ll never send my child back to a school building until there is a vaccine,’” he said. “And there are parents who, one rather rudely wrote to me last night using some very inappropriate language about what a coward I am for not opening schools fully today.”

The superintendents said when the time comes they will slowly return students to school buildings. Those in most need like special education, homeless and English learning students will come back first.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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