2021 | Schools

UPDATED: Governor tells Maryland schools to reopen by March 1, earlier than MCPS planned

Montgomery public school buildings were to stay closed until at least March 15

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday again pressured school districts across the state to reopen for in-person classes.

File photo

This story was updated at 7 p.m. Jan. 21, 2021, with a statement from MCPS.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday again pressured school districts across the state to bring students back to buildings for in-person classes, giving a deadline of March 1, or face legal action.

Hogan’s announcement directly affects Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest school district, which has been in a fully virtual model since March. Last week, the Montgomery County school board voted to delay its reopening plan from Feb. 1 to March 15, two weeks later than Hogan’s deadline.

“There is no public health reason for county boards to keep students out of schools. None,” Hogan said. “This really isn’t controversial. The science is clear. Nearly everyone wants to get our students back in school.”

Still, it’s unclear what action Hogan might take if he does not feel districts are making a “good faith effort” to reopen by March 1.

While he does have the authority to order schools closed, he cannot mandate that they reopen. But during a press conference on Thursday, Hogan pointed to several other jurisdictions that have retaliated against districts that have refused to reopen, like Chicago, which “cut off pay” for teachers who don’t return to buildings, and South Carolina, where the state threatened to take away educators’ teaching licenses for the same reason.

“If school systems don’t immediately begin a good faith effort (to reopen) we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal,” Hogan said.

State officials urged districts to use reopening plans they previously submitted to the state, which were approved in August, to guide their reopening process now.

In a statement Thursday evening, MCPS wrote that district officials are “deeply concerned” by the Hogan’s “abrupt” announcement “given that we are in the height of the pandemic.” The statement asked community members to give MCPS “time to thoughtfully assess these important developments and continue to prepare for a successful start to the second semester.”

Montgomery County Del. Eric Luedtke responded to Hogan’s threats in a Twitter post. He wrote that he and other delegates are “looking at any and all options to stop the Governor from following through with these threats against Maryland teachers, including an emergency bill.”

“We just got rid of one Donald Trump in DC. We don’t need another one in Annapolis,” Luedtke wrote.

The Maryland State Education Association wrote in a statement that “no one wants to open school buildings” more than educators and state officials should not “point fingers and threaten educators who are working harder than ever.”

In making its decision to delay reopening, the Montgomery County school board reviewed how local COVID-19 metrics compared to the benchmarks it had set to guide reopening.

The metrics for reopening are a COVID-19 case rate of 15 per 100,000 residents or less, or a test positivity rate below 5%.

At the time of the district’s latest decision, the case rate per 100,000 people was 49.8 — more than three times as high as the district’s reopening threshold. On Thursday, the rate was lower (36.6), but still twice as high as the district’s goal.

During that school board meeting, and in other meetings since, board members and MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said they might feel more confident reopening with higher metrics if staff members have been vaccinated. The vaccination of teachers has not started in Montgomery County yet.

But on Thursday, Department of Health Deputy Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan said reopening decisions “should not be based on the availability of vaccination or the level of vaccinations among staff.”

Hogan, Chan and State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon all said there is “no evidence” that schools contribute to higher rates of coronavirus transmission in the community, nor are they considered “super spreaders.”

Some recent national studies suggest that school reopenings do not contribute to higher rates of community spread, with the caveat that the reopenings occur when community transmission rates are already low.

Hogan also cited data that shows significant “learning loss” among students during virtual classes, particularly for low-income children and minority students.

In Montgomery County, though, the majority of students who fall into those categories have registered to remain in a fully virtual model, even when buildings begin to reopen, according to the results of a survey completed by families.

The county has been divided about the return to buildings. About 60% of students chose to remain fully virtual throughout the remainder of the academic year, while the rest opted to return to buildings when it is allowed.

There have been heated debates on social media about the pros and cons of returning to buildings. School board meetings have been filled with passionate testimony both from parents who want their children back in the classroom and those who don’t.

Hogan and Salmon each said on Thursday they’ve received thousands of messages from state residents urging them to do more to encourage reopening, and people sharing their personal struggles with virtual classes.

“The difficulty and stress so many of you have faced … has been heard loud and clear,” Salmon said.

During a recent school board meeting, Smith, too, acknowledged the messages he’s received from local families. But his take was different. Instead, Smith emphasized the varying opinions about the issue and the sharp divide between the two sides.

“There is no common agreement, and people use the science in whatever way they want to use the science,” Smith said. “I think it’s really important we don’t generalize.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com