BALTIMORE COUNTY—Gov. Larry Hogan made a stunning and unexpected announcement on Aug. 27, stating that all Maryland counties are authorized to reopen public schools.

Hogan is not enforcing schools to reopen but is making $10 million in grant funding available for schools that plan move back toward in-person learning.

Public schools in Maryland have been closed to traditional learning since March, when Hogan issued a state of emergency and ordered all public schools to close.

Maryland and Ohio were the first two states to close schools statewide, Hogan said during his opening remarks. Baltimore County Public Schools ( BCPS) announced last month that it will do a virtual reopening to start the school year but will plan to gradually allow students to return to their buildings.

“At this time, we are still moving forward with a virtual reopening, beginning September 8, but we will immediately begin to look at our plan to incorporate already created hybrid models that include a phased-in plan for small groups of students to return to our buildings,” BCPS Superintendent Dr. Darryl Williams said in a release following Hogan’s announcement.

“As we implement this small-group phased-in approach and are sure students and staff are safe, we will continue to evaluate the implementation and add groups of students until all have returned to school. This will take time to implement, but we promise to keep you informed as we move forward. Please continue to check the website and look for messages we will send to our families and staff through our phone notification system.”

Hogan backed up his decision to authorize counties to reopen public schools by citing the state’s 3.3 percent positivity as a sign of success during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that the current rate is an 87 percent drop from its peak (26.91 percent) nearly four months ago.

The state took aggressive measures early on, ordering all nonessential businesses to close and restricting public gatherings to just 10 people. Various local traditions were canceled this year as a result, such as the Essex Day Festival.

“With our safe, effective and gradual reopening plan, the development of a robust contract tracing operation, our successful long-term testing strategy, and most importantly, with the vigilance of the people of Maryland, our mitigation efforts have been extremely successful.,” Hogan said.

“As of today, Maryland’s positivity rate has been under five percent for 67 consecutive days, since June 25. It has been under four percent for 19 consecutive days, since Aug. 8. We have seen dramatic improvements of positivity rates of every single one of our most populous jurisdictions in the state.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both recommend that positivity rates remain at or below the five percent threshold before moving forward actions to reopen. Last week, all 24 Maryland jurisdictions fell below five percent for the first time, Hogan said.

Reopening public schools this fall has been a hotly-debated topic in communities across the United States. Elected officials, administrators, teachers, parents and students have expressed their opinions about reopening during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance last month about the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant.

“Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school,” the CDC said.

Baltimore County Johnny Olszewski Jr. chimed in and gave his opinion about Hogan’s announcement, and said Hogan has been absent for months on calls where he and other local leaders have been asking for re-opening guidelines from the state.

“Now, days before schools open, the Governor and Superintendent Salmon have finally released their guidance, while dangling $10 million to convince historically underfunded systems to open — whether they are ready or not,” Olszewski said.

“That’s not leadership. Maryland students and families deserve better.”

The Maryland teachers’ union also did not agree with the state’s decision stating in a release,

“The state abdicated responsibility for months for creating reopening standards and told districts to develop their own plans. Now they undercut hard decisions schools have made to keep students and educators safe days before the year begins. This is a recipe for chaos and confusion.”

Governor Hogan and State Superintendent, Dr. Karen Salmon, will visit school sites across the state in the coming weeks to observe systems that are bringing small groups of students back into a safe and educationally effective environment.

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