Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday outlined new data that he says show it is safe for every school district in the state to begin reopening and he criticized districts that have committed to virtual learning through the fall.
During a press conference, Hogan and state health officials said school districts are allowed to reopen if there are fewer than five cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in their jurisdiction and if the test positivity rate is below 5%. Each metric should be maintained for at least seven days.
Hogan said all 23 Maryland counties have met the new state benchmarks and should begin reopening school facilities for at least some in-person learning.
His statement is a stark contrast to repeated assertions by Montgomery County health officer Dr. Travis Gayles, who has said he does not believe it is safe for local school facilities to reopen in any capacity.
The county’s online dashboard that provides data about local COVID-19 cases does not have a seven-day positivity rate average, nor does it have cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. It does, however, have a three-day positivity rate average, which was 2.9% as of Thursday afternoon.
The Montgomery County school board this week finalized a plan for the fall semester that has children learning from home until at least the end of January.
During his speech, Hogan said such plans are “simply not acceptable” and that it “is absolutely critical we begin the process of getting our children safely and gradually back into the classrooms.”
In a carefully worded statement Thursday night, MCPS wrote it will still begin the school year virtually and that it needs time “to thoughtfully assess these important developments.”
“[W]e are deeply disappointed by the last-minute announcement of this critical information for school systems,” MCPS wrote.
In previous public meetings MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has said the school district would consider reopening school facilities earlier if local health conditions “dramatically improve.”
Hogan does not have the authority to order the reopening of schools, a fact which he acknowledged on Thursday.
Appearing with Hogan, State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said she “strongly encourages” school districts to review their fall plans by the end of the first academic quarter, “especially if” they’ve committed to remote instruction until January.
She said there is $10 million available in grant money for schools that provide at least some in-person instruction during the first quarter.
During remote instruction, Salmon said she believes students should receive at least 3.5 hours of live classes each day. The Maryland State Board of Education will consider her proposal next week. The state board can set requirements for the number of hours of live instruction schools must provide each day.
“Setting this standard is the only way to ensure an equitable education for all children across this state,” Salmon said.
MCPS’ plan for the fall has full days of live instruction, aside from Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, about half of the day is reserved for independent, off-screen learning. In total, MCPS’ weekly plan has 21.5 hours of live instruction per week for elementary students and 18 hours for middle and high school students.
The governor’s press conference sparked a flurry of confused and anxious social media posts by local parents and teachers who were frustrated by the timing — four days before the start of the academic year.
Many accused Hogan of making the school reopening decision “political” and said “the situation is already difficult enough.”
In a statement, Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost wrote that Hogan and Salmon are “focused on throwing school communities under the bus.”
“The governor and superintendent abdicated responsibility for creating reopening standards and told districts to come up with their own plans, indicating appropriate confidence that local school systems would do what is best for students,” Bost wrote. “Today, they chose to ambush and second guess the hard decisions that local boards of education, parents, and educators have made to keep students and schools safe.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org