Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is calling on every school system in the state to make an immediate effort to reopen in some form by March 1.
He made the announcement Thursday afternoon along with state Superintendent Karen Salmon.
"A growing consensus has emerged both here in Maryland and across the country that there is no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools," Hogan said. "This really isn't controversial. The science is clear, nearly everyone wants to get our kids back into school."
Hogan said the effects of keeping students at home are far too damaging. He said the estimated cumulative learning loss for students could equate to five to nine months. Students of color and those who are low-income and disadvantaged are disproportionately impacted, Hogan added.
"That [learning loss] is unacceptable. It is simply unconscionable. I understand in earlier stages of the pandemic that this was a very difficult decision for county school boards to make, but we know so much more now than we did back then, and there can no longer be any debate at all," Hogan said.
Salmon said it is important to reopen schools not just for the academic benefits but because schools support students in other ways.
"In addition to educational instruction, schools support the development of social-emotional skills throughout interactions with teachers and peers, they establish a safe environment for learning and often address nutritional, behavioral health and other special needs, as well as facilitate physical activity," she said.
Jinlene Chan, deputy state health secretary for public health, joined Hogan and Salmon at the press conference and presented two options for the safe reopening of schools.
Under option one, which is recommended by the Maryland Department of Health, school systems would enact daily in-person learning for students who have disabilities, special learning needs, those who have difficulty learning remotely and students who are on Career and Technical Education paths. Elementary schools under option one would either phase in daily, in-person learning or hybrid learning if health and safety requirements are unable to be met. Secondary schools would begin with hybrid learning and would phase in daily in-person learning if the health and safety requirements are able to be implemented.
Under option two, school systems would implement daily in-person learning for students with unique educational needs. Elementary schools would have phased-in or hybrid learning and secondary schools would either have remote learning or a phase in of hybrid learning.
Regardless of how school systems choose to reopen, families will continue to have the option to keep their children at home and access virtual learning.
Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Terry Alban said she appreciates the guidance on reopening has been updated. When asked how it will impact FCPS' current plans to begin a hybrid model on Feb. 16, Alban said she thinks FCPS is on track.
"I need to see the specific guidance to know if we need to modify our plans. Superintendents meet with the Maryland Department of Health and [Maryland State Department of Education] [Friday] morning, so I hope to learn more," Alban said.
During Thursday's press conference, Chan also talked about research that has emerged from other states and counties on the spread of COVID-19 within schools.
"There is little evidence that school reopening is a major driver of overall community spread," she said. "Studies have indicated that transmission in schools is relatively uncommon when there is effective implementation of the mitigation strategies including distancing, use of masks and cleaning."
She added that children under the age of 10 are less likely to spread the virus and there have been limited outbreaks in schools in Maryland; moreover, the schools that have seen multiple outbreaks have been found to not be in compliance with the recommended mitigation strategies.
Chan encouraged all educators to get vaccinated when doses become available and said decisions surrounding schools reopening should not be based on the availability of vaccines or the level of vaccination among educators. Teachers and school-based staff have been placed in Group 1B of the state's vaccination plan. Frederick County is currently vaccinating Group 1A and those over the age of 75. It is unclear when the rollout of vaccines will begin for teachers and others who are in Group 1B and under the age of 75.
Missy Dirks, president of the Frederick County Teacher's Association, said she found the governor's announcement to be confusing and contradictory.
"In one breath ... all three of them said it's very important that as many educators as possible get the vaccine ... it's an important step to stop community spread. And then in the next breath they say but it doesn't matter if you get it before you go into an enclosed space with lots of people. That's a very mixed message," she said.
Both Hogan and Salmon implored teachers' unions to work with them to safely reopen schools.
"I know that the vast majority of teachers want to desperately get back to school with their students and their colleagues and I want to make it clear to the teacher's union that we fully expect teachers to make every effort to return to the classroom," Hogan said.
The governor pointed out that other school districts across the country have threatened to either hold teachers' pay or revoke teaching licenses if they do not return to school.
"We do not want to have to take such actions here in Maryland, but if school systems do not immediately begin a good faith effort to return to the classrooms we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal," Hogan said.
Dirks did not appreciate the governor's remarks.
"It's very disappointing that the governor would use his bully pulpit to make threats against educators who have been working over and above to make sure they're meeting the needs of students the best they can in an environment that before this year they had never taught in," she said. "While the governor was speaking I was getting text messages from educators feeling very disheartened and demoralized that their governor doesn't seem to acknowledge all the work that they've been putting in on behalf of their students."
The ultimate decision to reopen schools rests with each county's board of education, which Hogan pointed out. The governor cannot order schools to reopen, but he said he will do everything within his legal power to get students back into classrooms.
The Frederick County Board of Education in November voted to allow Alban to make decisions regarding the reopening of schools.