The Frederick County school system’s COVID-19 response has degenerated into a shouting match, with teachers pitted against the administration, board members sniping at each other and parents left hopeful, scared or angry.
Everyone is frustrated that the pandemic has gone on so long and been so devastating and disrupting. We all feel as though we have lost a year, living in suspended animation, desperate to get life back to normal.
The slow, bungled rollout of the virus vaccination program has exacerbated an already tense situation.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s pronouncement that schools should return to limited in-person instruction by March 1 was less than helpful without more information on how teachers and staff could be protected from the disease. Almost all teachers are still waiting to be vaccinated.
Hogan at first hinted that they could be fired for refusing to go back into the classrooms, but he said at a news conference Tuesday that no teacher would have to go back. The strain may be wearing on the governor as well.
Frederick Superintendent Terry Alban is taking the brunt of the blame from the local teachers’ union, which has voted no confidence in her. Alban earned their ire by deciding to go ahead with a hybrid learning model beginning on Feb. 16, with teachers returning to buildings today, Jan. 27. She had delayed the model for two weeks but decided now was the right time to go forward.
The union said the school system is requiring teachers to return before health and safety measures have been met and before vaccinations of educators have begun.
"This is putting educators and our students at much higher risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 than is necessary," the statement said.
Frederick County reported 67 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and the positivity rate was 7.6 percent. State guidance from last summer said the rate should be less than 5 percent and new cases fewer than 15 per 100,000 residents -- both marks we haven't hit.
More troubling, Alban decided to go ahead without reaching a new Memorandum of Understanding with the union on working conditions. Since the health crisis began in March, the administration and union have regularly come to such agreements on rules.
Alban should have talked to the union and agreed with a plan before announcing a start date for hybrid education.
Teachers have legitimate concerns about being exposed to the virus by returning to the classroom. Teachers range in age from their 20s to their 60s, and they have varying degrees of vulnerability to the virus.
Ordering older teachers to return to classroom without being vaccinated is thoughtless and possibly reckless. As the union said: "Working with [the union] to resolve all outstanding issues before educators are required to return to buildings is not a high burden to meet."
On the other side of the issue, we know that children need to get back to school as soon as possible. Virtual instruction is not ideal for a large portion of the children, and the isolation of being kept at home has been devastating on some.
The ideal situation, union members say, would be to delay the hybrid model until a majority of teachers are able to get vaccinated. Maryland has placed K-12 educators in vaccination group 1B, which was supposed to begin last week in Frederick County. However, due to limited supply of the vaccine, the county is currently only vaccinating individuals in group 1A and those over the age of 75.
On a side issue, the no-confidence vote revealed a fissure on the school board as well. The board issued a statement saying: "A majority of the board agrees with Dr. Alban’s plan,” but one member, Liz Barrett, said the statement issued was not circulated for review.
"I object to this continued lack of transparency that hurts public trust and ultimately our kids," Barrett wrote.
OK, everyone needs to calm down and take a step back from the battle lines.
We all want the schools to reopen as soon as is safely possible. This dispute is about what “safely possible” actually means. The board, the superintendent and the teachers all need to join together to get to a good solution, protecting educators while getting kids back to class.