Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday that all county school systems can safely reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, as many of the state’s public school students prepare to begin the fall term with remote learning.
The Republican governor said the decision about reopening schools lies with county officials, but he strongly endorsed resuming classes with face-to-face instruction.
“It is absolutely critical that we begin the process of getting our children safely and gradually back into the classrooms,” Mr. Hogan said Thursday afternoon during a media briefing. “There is no substitute for in-person instruction.”
He cited a 3.3% statewide positivity rate for COVID-19 testing, stating that Maryland is doing much better with the pandemic than much of the U.S. He noted that the state’s positivity rate has been under 5% for 63 consecutive days and under 4% for 19 days.
Since coronavirus metrics have dramatically improved, Mr. Hogan described it as unacceptable that some school districts have not considered plans to reopen and said plans should use a hybrid approach that includes some in-person instruction.
School districts were required to submit their plans to the state on Aug. 14. Of the state’s 24 school districts, 16 have developed plans that include some in-person learning and eight have planned only for online instruction, according to Mr. Hogan. Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard and Anne Arundel counties have planned for online-only instruction for the first semester.
Schools that reopen will need to follow physical distancing, cleaning and disinfection and quarantine guidelines, officials said.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy health secretary, said that jurisdictions that are below 5% test positivity rate and 5 cases per 100,000 people should be able to hold in-person instruction as long as guidance on physical distance and face masks is followed.
She said jurisdictions with higher rates should be able to put in place a hybrid model of online and in-person instruction. According to those benchmarks, schools in all jurisdictions as of Thursday can open for some in-person learning, Dr. Chan said.
If there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a school, decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. The affected school system would have to work with local health officials to decide mitigation measures needed to protect students or whether to shut down an entire school or classroom.
Maryland schools Superintendent Karen Salmon urged districts to look at their modes of learning by the end of the first quarter of the school year, noting the struggle for at-risk students and those with disabilities to not have in-person instruction.
“It’s impossible to ignore the impact that not having students in the classroom is having on every area of daily life,” Ms. Salmon said.
The Maryland State Department of Education next week will discuss the minimum number of hours of face-to-face instruction that school systems should have.
The state is going to provide incentives for school districts that are working on plans to get back to in-person instruction. Ms. Salmon announced $10 million in grants for school systems that bring students back for in-person learning.
While the governor urged school districts to reopen, he said the state does not have the authority to order them to do so.
“We’re going to do what we can within the law, but we’re not going to change state law to take away the authority of school boards,” Mr. Hogan said.
Officials in Montgomery County, which begins its online school term Monday, have clearly expressed opposition to returning students to the classrooms.
“We continue to feel strongly that it’s not safe for schools to open, and we continue to recommend that nonpublic schools which haven’t made decisions to not open yet,” County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday at a media briefing.
As of Thursday, the coronavirus has infected more than 106,000 state residents and killed nearly 3,600, health department data shows.