ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Larry Hogan called on school systems and teachers around the state to begin in-person learning no later than March 1.
The announcement comes on the same week teachers are eligible for receiving the coronavirus vaccine. Hogan, citing advice from his own deputy secretary of health, said there was no reason to wait to be vaccinated and threatened the possibility of punitive actions for school systems and teachers who don’t return to the classroom this spring.
“A growing consensus has emerged across the country and here in Maryland that there is no public health reason for county school boards to keep kids out of schools,” said Hogan. “This really isn’t controversial. The science is clear.”
Hogan called for school systems and teachers to return to classrooms by March 1.
Schools across the state have been in various stages of operation, with most moving online this fall after closing to in-person instruction last spring.
“We know so much more than we did back then,” said Hogan. There can no longer be any debate at all. It is abundantly clear that that the toll of keeping kids out of school far exceeds any potential risk of having students in school where they belong.”
The governor issued the call for a return to in-class instruction against the backdrop of the vaccination of more than a half dozen teachers, classroom aids, school administrators and staff and bus drivers.
The announcement and potential for penalties caught leaders of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, off-guard.
“There has been a lot of collaboration at the local level,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the state teachers union. “Unfortunately there has not been that kind of collaboration from the state. They only way we get information is through press conferences.”
Bost said most teachers want to return to the classroom but need a combination of vaccinations, as well as improvements to classrooms and schools to limit spread of the virus to be safe.
Thursday, Hogan and state Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon issued an updated set of guidelines calling for the reopening of in-class instruction.
“There is not a demonstrated public health reason to keep schools closed,” said Salmon.
State education officials, based on advice from the Health Department, are calling for daily in-person learning for students with special needs and learning disabilities as well as those who have difficulty with remote instruction or are part of career and technology programs.
That same option also calls for phased daily in-person instruction for elementary students or hybrid options only if health and safety options cannot be met.
Middle and high school students could attend a mix of in-person and at-home classes with phased classroom instruction if health and safety requirements cannot be met.
“We do believe that it is time to get our kids back into the classroom,” said Acting Deputy Health Secretary Jinlene Chan.
Chan said the risk of community spread in schools is so low that teachers should not wait to be vaccinated to return.
“School reopening decisions should not be based on the availability of vaccines or the level of vaccination among the staff,” said Chan.
Bost, however, said teachers have concerns about not only vaccines but also protective equipment and procedures to mitigate spread. March 1, she said, is an arbitrary date and referenced Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nations leading infectious disease doctor.
“You can’t just pick a date,” said Bost. “Other things pick that date.”
Hogan called for teachers to return to the classroom as quickly as possible and said the state’s teachers union must stop throwing up roadblocks to a return to in-person instruction.
Speaking to reporters, the governor noted that some other states are imposing penalties on teachers, including refusing to pay those who will not return to the classroom or stripping them of their teaching credentials.
“We don’t want to have to take such actions here in Maryland, but if a school system does not immediately begin a good-faith effort to return to the classrooms, we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal,” said Hogan.
Bost expressed disappointment over Hogan’s threat, calling Wednesday’s swearing-in of President Joseph Biden “hopeful” only to see that attitude reversed by the governor a day later.
“Today, to hear our governor threaten our educators was disheartening,” said Bost.