- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2021

School districts in Greater Washington are taking different approaches to reopening amid calls for returning children to classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.

The D.C. Public Schools system’s plans to begin in-person instruction next Monday came after months of back-and-forth between school officials and the Washington Teachers’ Union.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said last week that the return plan is “the best reopening plan anywhere in the country.” The union, which represents nearly 5,000 educators, said that many teachers are “frightened” to conduct in-person classes.

“We understand the social and developmental concerns facing our students in this distance environment,” union President Elizabeth Davis said. “However, as educators, our obligation is to serve our students, to educate them and help ensure they can live happy and fulfilling lives. We also have an obligation [to] protect them from the ravages of a deadly virus.”

D.C. teachers returning to face-to-face instruction became eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Monday.

In Fairfax County, public school staff started receiving vaccinations in mid-January, as teachers prepare to teach in-person again on Feb. 16.

Open FCPS, which touts itself as a bipartisan group representing thousands of parents, is skeptical that the district will follow through with the plan, which they say is inadequate.

“[P]arents will hold our applause for when we actually see the school doors being unlocked, and a plan in place that will provide a five day per school week for students,” the group said last week.

The D.C. and Fairfax County school systems are allowing families to choose between online-only learning or a hybrid of in-person and online learning.

Meanwhile, Arlington County Public Schools, which began inoculating employees in mid-January, does not have a set date for students to return to in-person learning. Superintendent Francisco Duran said last week that he wants to wait until more staff are vaccinated before setting dates.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently unveiled reopening guidelines and urged schools to start planning to return to classrooms.

“I want schools to come from this starting point: ‘How do we get schools open safely?’” Mr. Northam said Jan. 14.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan last week released updated back-to-school guidance and called on school districts to reopen for hybrid instruction by March 1, citing a “terrible learning loss” due to online-only instruction.

His announcement, which came days after Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) rescheduled its reopening from Feb. 1 to March 15, prompted worry among school officials.

“[W]e are deeply concerned by the abrupt change to the health metrics guidance set forth by the state given that we are in the height of the pandemic,” MCPS said, adding that it needs “time to thoughtfully assess” the new developments.

Mr. Hogan acknowledged that he cannot order county school boards to reopen classrooms, but he brought up other ways to impel officials. He noted that Chicago has cut pay for instructors who refuse to teach in-person and South Carolina has threatened to revoke licenses of instructors who do the same.

“We do not want to have to take such actions here in Maryland,” the governor said, adding that if schools don’t immediately begin “a good faith effort” to reopen, we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal.”

K-12 teachers statewide became eligible for vaccination three days before Mr. Hogan’s call-to-action.

The Maryland State Education Association, which represents 75,000 education staffers, said the slow rollout of vaccinations is part of the reason teachers’ want to continue teaching remotely.

“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 union said.

Prince George’s County Public Schools do not have a reopening date, but schools CEO Monica Goldson said the vaccine distribution made her “more optimistic” for students to return in spring.

The Coalition of Maryland Parents and Students, which includes 13 organizations that represent more than 15,000 parents statewide, praised Mr. Hogan’s call-to-action.

“We have watched as our children have suffered severe academic loss, declining grades, social isolation and an increase in mental illness,” the group said. “We call on our boards of Education to heed the bipartisan calls from both state and federal leaders today, and in days, not weeks, take action to make this a reality. The time is now, the stakes couldn’t be higher for our children.”

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