Advocates are once again renewing their efforts to get Maryland public schools to open back up for in-person classes, with over 500 health care professionals signing a letter to encouraging Gov. Larry Hogan and Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting health deputy for public health services, to expedite reopenings.
“We are asking for an OPTION to return to in-person school 5 days a week after spring break and through the end of the school year for ALL children in Maryland public schools, and a continued undisrupted model of teaching that will offer 5-days a week of in-person instruction in the fall,” the letter reads.
The coordinator of this effort, Carol Vidal, a clinical child psychiatrist who works in schools, said her main goal is to encourage Hogan to increase pressure on school districts that currently only offering two or three days of in-person instruction, or that are still phasing in all grade levels.
Vidal said she has witnessed the strain of the pandemic and at-home schooling on children firsthand through telehealth appointments with students; the letter also cites research showing declines in mental health and increases in suicide attempts, substance use, eating disorders, depression and anxiety among children throughout the pandemic.
While Hogan and Maryland Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon had originally asked districts to reopen some level of in-person learning by March 1, several large districts did not follow that directive. Some are currently in the process of phased reopenings taking place over the course of several weeks; Prince George’s County plans to begin offering hybrid learning to some students beginning mid-April.
According to data provided by Burbio, a data aggregator, Maryland schools are offering the fourth-least in-person instruction of any state in the country.
Some of the letter’s signatories feel that this pace of reopening reveals a lack of urgency to address the problems that have arisen from online schooling.
Margery Smelkinson, an infectious disease scientist who has four elementary school children in the Montgomery County school system, said she thinks some school districts may have grown lax as the school year comes to an end.
“They don’t want to change their plans. A lot of the districts I think have kind of (chalked) this year up to being over, so (they’ve said,) ‘let’s just kind of finish it out the way we planned,’” she said. “But we have a whole quarter left, and kids have been out of school for a whole year and we should be making every effort possible to prioritize the students at this point.”
When Hogan originally announced that schools would be expected to offer some in-person instruction by March 1, he referenced school districts across the country that had penalized teachers who refused to teach in person by removing credentials or docking pay. At the time the governor told reporters that “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.”
But no such repercussions have come to districts that are still lagging on reopening.
“March 1 rolled around, and many districts did not open,” Smelkinson said. “We need the state leaders to acknowledge that and do something about it.”
Though Vidal said she has been sympathetic throughout the pandemic to teachers who are worried about returning to school, she feels that it has now become safe enough for a wide-scale reopening, with most K-12 teachers having received their vaccine.
Vidal also hopes the letter will encourage the state government to acknowledge the lasting health effects isolation and online learning may have on children, from prolonged anxieties about the virus to the physical effects of being seated in front of a computer all day.
“It seems like there’s this push for zero risk with COVID, and what we’re trying to say is, there’s a lot more than COVID, for kids, especially, because COVID is not that much of a risk for kids,” she said. “But all these other things are actually a big risk.”
Vidal hopes that this push from health professionals, some of whom work with children and some of whom have children of their own in the public school system, will show that many health care workers see reopening as a healthier option for students than continuing virtual schooling.
“A lot of these other health issues are going to have effects in the long term that are much more severe than what happened with COVID for children,” she said. “It’s important to take that into account.”