2020 | Schools

Superintendents, lawmakers want statewide metrics to guide school reopenings

They say specificity would ease community concerns, questions

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith speaks during a meeting with state senators and other education leaders on Thursday

Screenshot from meeting livestream

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith and other education leaders across the state this week said metrics developed by the Maryland Department of Education would help guide the successful reopening of school buildings for in-person instructions.

During an online meeting with state Sens. Bill Ferguson and Paul Pinsky on Thursday morning, Smith said state education officials have developed guidelines for precautions schools should take once they reopen, but there is no guidance for when to reopen.

“This is not a pass the buck situation,” said Smith, who last month also called on state officials to develop clearer guidance for districts. “This is an area where the expertise is not centered on education … It’s in the health department and that’s what it should come out of.”

Pinsky wrote about the need for state leadership in a column published by Maryland Matters on Wednesday, saying “our state’s 24 educational jurisdictions need to have the state set the tone and provide necessary resources.” But, he wrote, “our state’s top leadership has … chosen to abdicate virtually all responsibility, leaving most everything to the locals.”

Smith and other superintendents on Thursday’s call — Kelly Griffith of Talbot County and Sonja Brookins Santelises of Baltimore City — agreed that more guidance from the state would be helpful. Each said they hope to see guidelines about what level of community spread and percentage of people in a jurisdiction tested would mean it is generally safe for school buildings to reopen.

In an emailed statement to Bethesda Beat, a state Department of Education spokesperson referred to the Maryland Recovery Plan for Education and state Roadmap to Recovery as tools school districts should use to guide reopening decisions.

“The stages are based upon specific statewide data and metrics. Local school systems can be more restrictive as needed,” the statement said. “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 Recovery Plan for Education lays out 13 precautions school districts should take when they reopen, including screening students for learning loss early in the academic year, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and providing adequate social distancing on school buses.

The Roadmap to Recovery cites a recommendation from the National Governors’ Association — Gov. Larry Hogan was chairman until last week — that says: “Governors can work with local officials to support a targeted approach to reopening that recognizes that different counties and jurisdictions have varying risk profiles.”

It says some county-by-county approaches to reopening decisions “may be contemplated,” but officials should consider that Maryland residents often travel between jurisdictions, which could potentially spread the virus further and easier.

But not having specific statewide benchmarks to guide decisions could prove problematic, Smith said.

If one superintendent decides to gauge a district’s reopening timeline on the county’s percentage of people who test positive for the coronavirus, and another uses data about community spread, it “calls into question the credibility” of each plan, Smith said.

He said it would be better for school districts and a comfort to the public to know they are using metrics that top state officials created to make decisions.

“I think that this statewide strategy we’ve been discussing … will help people have some measure of comfort knowing there’s a kind of standard,” Smith said.

During a call with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said “it’s stunning this is an area (state officials) have chosen to be quiet about.”

County officials have been critical of the state’s approach to reopening during the coronavirus pandemic before.

Hogan allowed counties to proceed with reopening at their own pace if local data showed the virus was still a significant problem in the community.

However, when announcing at the state level that jurisdictions could begin reopening, Elrich and other county executives wanted the governor to better explain why some were not ready.

In return, Hogan has criticized county health officer Dr. Travis Gayles and Montgomery County for using different metrics than the state to guide reopening.

“There seems to be some confusion,” Hogan said about Montgomery County during a May 27 press conference. “The county leaders aren’t really paying attention to the state plan. They’re kind of making their own metrics.”

This month, Gayles twice issued orders that prohibited private schools in the county from having in-person classes. The first time, Hogan issued an order overturning Gayles’ directive. The second time, Gayles withdrew his order after the state’s health secretary agreed with Hogan, saying a county health officer should not issue a blanket ban on schools reopening.

State officials said reopening decisions should be left to the individual district and its schools.

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