Localized plans will lead Maryland schools' reopening

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon said Wednesday, July 22, the state’s schools will be able to operate under “flexible” and localized plans for their reopenings this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Salmon is pictured during a news conference Wednesday, March 18, in Annapolis.

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon said Wednesday, July 22, all 24 school systems will have flexibility in deciding, with their local health departments, whether their students return to school virtually or in person this fall.

Salmon said nine of Maryland’s school districts have already decided to go virtual for the upcoming school year. She named Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Charles, Howard, Harford, Montgomery, Washington and Prince George’s counties as being among those that have rejected the possibility of in-person instruction.

A lot of those systems, Salmon said, “are in the metro area, where we do see the higher number of cases.” The remaining jurisdictions, which include all Eastern Shore systems, are “still in the process of making decisions” and have until Aug. 14 to finalize and submit their plans to the State Department of Education for review, she said.

“We all struggle with decisions about what’s the right timing for things,” Salmon said of her stance on school re-openings. “My hope is, wouldn’t it be great if we had a vaccine and the situation changes? And maybe, because we were so apt at going out (into virtual learning) pretty quickly, maybe we can get our kids back.”

Salmon said she’s “always hopeful about many things” and she’s “hopeful we can get back to school during the school year.”

“We’ve always been working toward the goal of safely reopening,” she said.

While Salmon is leaving decision-making up to individual school systems, those that choose to resume in-person instruction will have to play by the rules, she said — which are outlined as “guardrails,” and include the wearing of face coverings by all students and staff.

In a previous meeting of the Cecil County Board of Education, held earlier this month, CCPS Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Lawson said the district was waiting for the the state to provide its “guardrails” before reaching a final decision relating to what school will look like in the fall semester.

The Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland State Department of Education will require adherence to the following guidelines concerning the wearing of face coverings among students and staff during a school day:

  • School staff must wear cloth face coverings while in the school building, on school grounds when not contraindicated due to a medical condition, intellectual or developmental disabilities, or other conditions or safety concerns;
  • All students, school staff and bus drivers must wear a cloth face covering while on a school bus when not contraindicated due to a medical condition or developmental or safety considerations;
  • Other adults must wear cloth face coverings when they must enter the school building or grounds for essential functions;
  • Students, especially students in middle and high school, must wear cloth face coverings in the school building and on school grounds as much as possible when not contraindicated due to a medical condition or developmental or safety considerations;
  • The use of cloth face coverings is most important at times when physical distancing measures cannot be effectively implemented especially when indoors;
  • Local education agencies should examine the structure and schedule of the education program to identify when physical distancing may be a challenge;
  • Cloth face coverings should not be worn by children under two years old and anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a face covering without assistance.

Before school systems can make the leap to reopen, though, they must meet a series of benchmarks ahead of their reopening, Salmon said.

Those benchmarks include identifying learning gaps and instructional placement of students, maintaining certain educational standards, adopting and following cleaning and sanitation procedures, ensuring safe transportation for students, developing a system for tracking attendance and following state guidelines for athletics and activities.

School systems also will be required to follow state health protocols for responding to any confirmed COVID-19 infections among students and staff.

Among those protocols are establishing a process for parents to notify the school when they detect their child has the virus, establishing a timeline for retrieving ill students or staff from school grounds, and outlining contact tracing procedures in coordination with the local health department.

According to an MDH document detailing the anticipated protocols, schools also will be responsible for providing written notification and next steps suggestions to all of a positive student’s or staff member’s suspected contacts. Reactionary steps in the face of a confirmed coronavirus infection could result in a student —and his or her close contacts — having to temporarily return to distance learning, the document states.

If a person develops COVID-19 symptoms during a school day, the school is expected to “isolate the person in a designated isolation area” and the person should be vacated from the school premises “as soon as possible.”

Local health departments, the MDH document states, have the authority to reissue a school closure if an outbreak occurs.

Despite looming uncertainty surrounding the 15 school systems’ reopening plans that remain unannounced and undecided, Salmon voiced an optimistic view of students’ potential to return to school buildings, either full time or in a hybrid capacity, within the approaching school year.

She said she wants to “get our students back to school as soon as possible for in-person instruction and this should be the driving goal and the basis for all of our decisions.”

“What happens in school buildings is an essential part of our children’s development on so many levels: academic, social, emotional and nutritional. These can never be fully replaced by a virtual environment,” Salmon said, though she acknowledged, “the imminent safety and health of students and staff must always be the first priority.”

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