School board members cut short their board reports to livestream Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) press conference Wednesday, suspecting the briefing would have a big impact on how schools would be operating for the rest of the year.
It did. Karen Salmon, the state’s superintendent, announced students will not return to Maryland public schools for the remainder of the school year, while distance learning will continue. The schools first closed March 16 due to the coronavirus and the state had periodically extended the closures over the past several weeks.
Salmon also said when students do return to school, it could look different. Smaller groups of students could meet with teachers at a time instead of everyone returning at once. She acknowledged graduation ceremonies, noting that those decisions are left to local superintendents and school boards, but the plans must adhere to the governor’s executive orders.
Last week, St. Mary’s school officials crafted a detailed plan for graduation that included students being filmed individually walking across the stage at the Dr. James A. Forrest and Technology Center wearing personal protective equipment, and limiting the building to 10 people or fewer at a time. The recording would be edited to create a graduation film for each high school. Those plans are now canceled, or possibly postponed, even they were initially approved by the county’s health officer.
“We were informed that to be in compliance with the governor’s executive order as it was being interpreted, we could not go forward with having students or their parents drive to school as the gathering of caps and gowns was considered nonessential travel,” Superintendent Scott Smith said at Wednesday’s meeting after showing the beginning of the press conference. The cap and gown distribution, the first part of the graduation plan, was scheduled to start this week.
Dr. Meena Brewster, the county’s health officer, told The Enterprise she did feel comfortable with the alternative graduation plan at first.
“When we looked further into it … it was not compliant to the stay-at-home order,” she said. Brewster later added, “as it is written currently, it didn’t really deem a graduation as an essential activity.”
The health officer said hopefully the order is lifted next week so the plan can continue.
Brewster said she and Smith have been in constant communication with one another, and she also talks with people on the state level “to essentially make the case how we can do something in a safe manner.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Hogan announced that outdoor activities, like golfing, boating, fishing and camping, will be permitted starting yesterday, May 7.
“If, as of tomorrow morning, we move forward with outdoor recreational activities … I can assure you there is nothing more appropriate than getting fresh air in an organized appropriate fashion at one of our schools and, in the process, picking up your caps and gowns,” Smith said.
The plan included students picking up their caps and gowns this week, setting up video production next Monday and schools submitting specified program plans by May 12. Later next week they planned to record and submit student performances such as bands and choirs, and submit photo montages and yearbook slideshows.
Speeches were to be recorded on May 18, and students would have walked the stage, individually, between May 19 and May 21 at the Forrest center. The school system planned to air the commencements on Atlantic Broadband cable’s Channel 96, YouTube, the main public schools website and on social media the last week in May, on the same dates that have been the three public high schools’ traditional graduations.
“If we get to stage one, we can absolutely move forward with this plan,” Smith said about the governor’s recovery plan, adding they would have to modify the graduation plan timeline.
Smith said they will need the next two days to coordinate with county government, the health department and local police, and a revised letter will be sent home to parents this week. He did guarantee that students will receive their cap and gowns. Parents or students could pick them up or the school system will have them delivered.
Karin Bailey, chair of the school board, said frustration from the community seems to come their way.
“That’s fine. We will accept it. But please do not for any single moment think that we are not just as torn apart by this as you are,” she said.
“Please parents, give us two days to figure out how to do this,” Smith said on Wednesday at the meeting.