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Hogan encourages local educators to begin reopening schools soon

ANNAPOLIS — School systems around the state are being “strongly encouraged” by Gov. Larry Hogan to begin moving to in-class instruction by the end of the first quarter at the latest.

Hogan and his top health and school advisers cited two months of improving trends related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor and Maryland Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon said counties are now fully authorized to bring students back into the building.

“It’s easier to say that we’re not going to bring any kids back for the rest of the year as opposed to sitting down and doing the hard work of trying to figure out how could we get kids back in for safe instruction,” said Hogan. “It’s a lot of hard work, and we’re going to ask them to go back and do some more hard work.”

And while the governor cannot order schools to reopen to in-class instruction, Hogan and Salmon said they are offering financial incentives from a $10 million grant pool to local jurisdictions that do so by the end of the first grading period.

Earlier on Thursday, Republican lawmakers led by Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties and Senate Minority Leader, and Del. Mike Griffith, R-Cecil and Harford counties, called on Salmon and the state school board to implement a hybrid system for the coming academic year.

The pair cited low infection rates in that county as justification for starting the year with a combination of in-class and virtual instruction. The pair also expressed concern about an inadequate number of take-home laptops for students.

The change would give parents more control over whether to send their children back into schools.

“We share the concerns with many parents and families that the current system of exclusively virtual learning will not meet the educational needs of Harford County students,” said Jennings. “The previous semester of online learning has already put our students behind. The school year begins in less than two weeks and there is a shortage of Chromebooks. There is also still parts of the county that lack reliable internet access. This is an untenable situation for our students.”

Harford County is reporting a positivity rate of 3.18%, slightly lower than the statewide rate of 3.3%. Covidactnow.org, another organization that is routinely cited by local health officers, lists the county’s rate at 4.5% and considers the spread of the disease in county and state as “slow and controlled.”

Hogan and Acting Deputy Health Secretary Jinlene Chan offered schools a set of statistical guidelines that they can take into account in deciding when and if to reopen schools. 

The first is a county’s individual positivity rate. Currently, 17 of 24 counties are under 3.5%. Under 5% for at least two weeks is considered one benchmark for lifting restrictions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The second relies on a county’s rate of new cases per 100,000 population. The statistic was dismissed by Hogan weeks ago when New York used it to place Maryland on a list of states whose residents must quarantine when traveling to New York.

Chan called the metrics “very general” and said they were meant to help school systems make decisions.

Hogan and Chan did not, however, announce guidelines for local school systems on how to handle outbreaks in schools — one positive test is considered an outbreak under current guidelines. 

Health experts from Johns Hopkins last week said school systems and government health officials should plan for the eventuality of infections. They also said officials should clearly communicate in advance what a positive test means for closing a school and how it can reopen safely.

“It’s hard to give specific guidance to say yes if there’s X number of cases we shall do this. Every circumstance is unique and every school is unique, and so we would certainly look at the situation to identify how widespread potential contact might be to determine what the most effective measures to mitigate additional spread would be,” said Chan.

In July, Hogan and Salmon announced a reopening plan that stressed local independence on deciding the issue of when and how to return to class. Each jurisdiction was asked to develop a plan. 

Two-thirds of the counties submitted plans that included some plan to phase in a return to the classroom.

Eight did not.

“We’re not going to go back to them and order that they reopen schools, but we are going to strongly suggest that since the numbers have dramatically improved since many of them made these decisions,” said Hogan.

Salmon in July called the decision to open to in-person instruction “deeply personal.” It is also one that is deeply political, with Republicans and Democrats often on opposing sides in a heated election year.

Hogan said his call to return to the classroom is similar to that of governors in New York and New Jersey.

“There’s no politics,” said Hogan. “It’s not Republican and Democrat, it’s about whether you let parents and kids get in-person instruction and whether or not you agree with keeping everything shut. I think it’s a very bipartisan issue.”

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