Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Baltimore County Public Schools and The Coalition of Maryland Parents and Students.
Learning loss is affecting students of almost all demographics, with virtual learning being the main culprit, according to Gov. Larry Hogan.
Hogan gave a press conference from Annapolis on Jan. 21, joined by Superintendent of Schools Karen B Salmon. Hogan issued a public challenge to all local public school boards in the state, saying there is no public health reason for school boards to not allow students to return to public schools.
Hogan expressed his desire for all public schools in the state to reopen their doors by March 1. He aligned his own wish for successful school reopenings with that of newly-inaugurated US president Joe Biden, who said during the transition of power that he wants to see schools reopen within the first 100 days of his presidency.
“This really isn’t controversial,” Hogan said. “The science is clear. Nearly everyone wants to get our kids back into school.”
“This is a top priority that has strong and broad bipartisan support.”
All public schools were ordered to close last March after Hogan declared a state of emergency, when COVID-19 was discovered in Maryland. Public schools in Baltimore County have remained closed since then, having students switch to a strictly virtual platform.
The learning loss, Hogan said, is expected to be around 5-9 months, disproportionately affecting students of color, and low-income and disadvantaged students. Many debates around reopening have included the impact on students when they learn at home as opposed to in a classroom. Hogan added that the distribution of the vaccine has given an indication that the state’s health metrics could be reaching a plateau. The Maryland positivity rate as of Thursday, according to Hogan, was 7.66 percent, a 20-percent decrease.
“While school systems have made strides with remote learning, far too many students remain unable to thrive in such an environment,” Hogan said. “There can be no debating that online learning has taken an unmistakable toll on students, families and educators.”
State health officials presented new guidance pertaining to reopening schools on Thursday. Acting Deputy Secretary of Health Dr. Jinlene Chan also joined Hogan at his presser, told reporters on Thursday that the guidance is based on information learned in other states, and other counties, and is based on several considerations.
The first consideration, she said, is that evidence does not support the claim that sending students back to classrooms would increase community spread. Schools have reopened in setting where spread is low, and reopening didn’t lead to a rise in cases, she said. Schools have also been able to provide in-person instruction in places with higher community spread, including in Maryland jurisdictions.
The next consideration is that school transmission is relatively uncommon when schools enforce safety guidelines effectively. This includes distancing, use of masks, and sanitation, she said. In school outbreaks that have occurred, evidence showed that schools did not effectively enforce guidelines, she added.
The final consideration, she said, is that school closures, and pandemic isolation, are causing many students to fall behind academically, which could have long-lasting impacts if state officials don’t act now.
“Some studies are also showing growing signs of depression and anxiety from pandemic isolation, due in part to long-term school closures,” Dr. Chan said. “They also disrupt the availability of school-based programs that are really important to children and to families across the state such as school meals, mental health and psychological services.”
Baltimore County Public Schools issued a statement early in the evening on Thursday, saying it has a plan in place to return to in-person learning. An update to that plan was provided at the school board meeting held earlier in the week, the statement said.
“Our goal has always been to get students and staff back into schools as soon as it is healthy and safe to do so,” the statement said. “We have been following guidance from the Maryland State Department of Education and the Maryland Department of Health based on health metrics for Baltimore County.”
“We will review today’s announcement and adjust our reopening plan accordingly.”
The Coalition of Maryland Parents and Students (COMPS), a coalition of 13 organizations more than 15,000 parents around the state, also issued a statement on Thursday commending Hogan’s announcement. Reopen Baltimore County Public Schools is a member organization of this coalition.
“While millions of students across the country have safely returned to classrooms, Maryland has remained one of only six states with little to no in-person instruction,” the COMPS statement said.
“ Last week, in desperation, we turned to Governor Hogan for help, and he listened, and in the past 24 hours we feel incredibly hopeful for our kids. We strongly commend Governor Hogan for his leadership and commitment to both education and public health. He understands that the mitigation methods being used successfully in 44 states – masking and social distancing – can be used in Maryland, and he has granted our school districts the resources they need to make it happen.”
The COMPS statement also called on respective school boards in every jurisdiction to take action in “days, not weeks” to heed bipartisan calls from state and federal leaders to reintroduce in-person instruction.