ANNAPOLIS — There is no public health reason for local education boards to keep students out of school, Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday.

Data from contact tracing and epidemiologists indicates that school re-openings do not increase COVID-19 community spread or contribute to increased hospitalization rates, the state education board approved safe and effective reopening plans for all 24 school systems, and state health officials are providing additional science-based protocols for in-person learning to resume, he said.

Although no school system expressed need for personal protective equipment in order to reopen, the state provided more than two million masks and 200,000 face shields along with hand sanitizer, gowns, gloves and “unlimited coronavirus testing” available in every county, Hogan said.

COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers and staff are underway across the state, he said.

“Today we are urgently calling on all county school systems to immediately make every effort to return to hybrid in-person instruction no later than March 1, if not sooner,” Hogan said.

“It’s now estimated that by the end of the school year, the cumulative learning loss for students could equate to at least five to as many as nine months on average with the losses disproportionately impacting students of color and low income and disadvantaged students even more,” he said. “That is completely unacceptable. It is simply unconscionable.”

The City of Chicago cut pay for teachers that refuse to return to the classroom, South Carolina threatened to revoke all teaching licenses and Ohio will only offer COVID-19 vaccinations to teachers in school systems that submit to continuing in-person learning, Hogan said.

“We do not want to have to take such action here in Maryland,” he said. “But if school systems do not immediately begin a good-faith effort to return to the classroom, we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal.”

Maryland Public Health Services Acting Deputy Secretary Jinlene Chan said that school reopening decisions should not be based on the availability of COVID-19 vaccine or the level of vaccination among staff.

She discussed options for school systems that include daily in-person learning for students that have disabilities, special learning needs, or pupils in career or technology paths.

“For elementary schools, the options include phased daily in-person learning or hybrid learning if health and safety requirements are unable to be met,” Chan said. “For secondary students, we would recommend that hybrid learning or a phased-in daily in-person learning happen if the health and safety requirements are able to be implemented.”

Parents can decide whether a remote learning option is most appropriate, she said.

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said contact tracing showed that for the majority of COVID-19 cases among staff and students — that were inside schools previously open for hybrid instruction — originated outside of school facilities.

“Additionally we have seen childcare facilities and the school systems that have chosen to reopen do so safely and without significant impact on community spread,” she said.

Reaction to the governor’s message

Maryland Association of Boards of Education President Tammy Fraley, who is also an Allegany County Public Schools education board member, said local school boards recognize that students benefit from in-person instruction.

“That said, the health and safety of students and staff must continue to be a high priority,” she said via email. “All aspects must be factored into the local policy and administrative decisions of each local board and superintendent on whether and how to implement distance, hybrid, and/or in-person instruction.”

Following today’s press conference, and the review of the newly updated guidelines, each local school system will need to move forward in consideration of any mandatory and discretionary elements of the new guidelines in making school reopening decisions, Fraley said.

“As an organization, MABE will continue with our mission of providing members with a strong collective voice and supporting local school board governance through professional development, advocacy, and member services,” she said.

On the local level, Fraley said ACPS Interim Superintendent Jeff Blank and his staff will present to the school board and public detailed timelines and plans to transition students back to school.

“This would include the return of students in daily in-person learning as well as a hybrid model learning,” Fraley said. “The plan is already developed, it was a matter of determining when it was ‘most safe’ to start.”

Local and state COVID-19 cases

The Maryland Department of Health Thursday reported 2,166 new COVID-19 cases, 46 additional deaths and 46 fewer hospitalizations.

The statewide daily COVID-19 positivity rate was 7.66% with Allegany County at 7.64%, Garrett County at 12.49% and Washington County at 13.16%.

The statewide seven-day moving average COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people was 39.5. with Allegany County at 36.31, Garrett County at 37.42 and Washington County at 65.45.

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