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Maryland Gov. Hogan pushes to reopen schools for hybrid learning

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is going all in on a push to reopen schools in the state for hybrid learning by the beginning of March. 

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Hogan said during a news conference at St. John’s College in Annapolis on Thursday that there is a growing consensus in the state and in the country that there is “no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools” due to COVID-19.

He argued that continuing down a path of virtual learning could lead to significant setbacks for students, especially among students of color and those from low-income families.

“I understand that in earlier stages of the pandemic, that this was a very difficult decision for county school boards to make,” Hogan added. “But we know so much more now than we did back then. There can no longer be any debate at all. It is abundantly clear that the toll of keeping students out of school far exceeds any potential risk having students in school where they belong.”

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State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon said that recovery plans were developed by local school systems for both hybird and full in-person instruction and approved by the state Department of Education in August 2020. 

Reopening recommendations issued to Maryland schools from state health officials offer two learning scenarios for elementary students, secondary students, students with disabilities, special learning needs, or difficulty learning remotely, and career/technology students.

Under option one, which has been recommended by state officials,  students with disabilities, special learning needs, or difficulty learning remotely, and career/technology students would have daily-in person learning. Elementary students would have phased daily-in person learning with hybird learning only in the event that health and safety requirements cannot be met and secondary students would have hybrid learning with the opportunity for phased daily-in person learning if health and safety requirements can be met.

The second option would also require daily in person-learning for students with disabilities, special learning needs, or difficulty learning remotely, and career/technology students. However, elementary students would have hybrid learning with phased daily in-person learning if health and safety requirements can be met while secondary students would have remote learning with phased hybrid learning if health and safety requirements can be met.

“Local school systems should plan immediately for the return of students for in-person instruction by no later than March 1,” Salmon said.

Salmon noted that any parents or families who wish to remain in a virtual learning environment will be able to do so.

If schools don’t make a good faith effort to move toward some form of in-person learning, Hogan said the state will consider “every legal avenue at our disposal.” However, he acknowledged the decision ultimately falls on local officials and that he doesn’t have the authority to force schools to reopen.

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In a letter to Maryland State Education Association president Cheryl Bost on Thursday, Hogan and Salmon urged that the “the roadblocks to resuming in-person instruction must cease.”

“At this critical time for Maryland’s educational system, your advocacy for a safe but expeditious return to in-person instruction would be a critical stepping stone to mitigating further disrupted instruction,” the pair wrote. “It is estimated that by the end of this upcoming school year, the cumulative learning loss for students could equate to five to nine months on average with the losses disproportionately impacting students of color and low-income students.” 

“Studies have indicated that school reopenings do not significantly increase community spread or contribute to rising hospitalization rates,” the letter continued. “We need to follow the science, and we must use the case studies from around the globe as a testament to the successful and safe return of students to their schools.”

In addition, Hogan and Salmon cited President Biden’s support for the safe reopening of schools, noting his recent executive order which aims to reopen most schools within the Biden administration’s first 100 days.

The association issued a response in a statement on Facebook, writing: “No one wants to open school buildings safely and sustainably sooner than educators. So let’s focus on what we need to do to get there rather than point fingers and threaten educators who are working harder than ever.”

“Right now, many educators are trying to get vaccines and are being told that they are not yet available in their counties. Safety measures that public health experts have recommended are yet to be properly implemented in too many schools,” the statement continued. “No one is happy with the inequities that this pandemic has exacerbated or the trauma and pain that is has caused. Instead of moving goalposts and trying to scare educators, let’s focus on what we need to do to open schools safely and sustainably.”

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Dr. Salmon authorized $781 million in funding to “assist Maryland schools and students recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” through grant awards made available through the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act.

The funding is allocated towards reopening classrooms, assessing and addressing learning loss, and providing targeted tutoring and other initiatives to help alleviate the impact of the pandemic. 

Epidemiologists from Maryland’s Department of Health have also created a dashboard which tracks COVID-19 outbreaks associated with schools. According to data from the department on Thursday, 155 positive coronavirus cases were traced back to schools in the state. 

In addition, the state is prioritizing teachers and education staff for COVID-19 vaccinations, with plans from Maryland school systems already underway.

Maryland reported 2,166 new cases of the coronavirus and 46 more deaths on Thursday, bringing the statewide totals to 334,519 cases and 6,560 related deaths since the pandemic began.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, more than 37.9 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed and 17.5 million doses have been administered. In Maryland, 685,325 doses have been distributed, or 11,336 per 100,000 people, and 271,905 have been administered, or 4,498 per 100,000 people.

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