Despite the controversy about opening schools to in-person learning created by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R), Montgomery County Public Schools students started a new school year virtually on Monday.
On Aug. 27, just four days before MCPS students were scheduled to begin the school year, Hogan announced, “As a result of our improved health metrics, every single county school system in the State of Maryland is now fully authorized to begin safely reopening.
“Nearly everyone agrees that there is no substitute for in-person instruction. It is essential that we all work together on flexible hybrid plans to safely get some of our kids back into classrooms and into healthy and supportive learning environments,” Hogan said.
He did however note that the final decision on safe openings continues to rest with county boards of education, adding that decisions should be made based on a set of statewide metrics, guidelines, and benchmarks issued by the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) in collaboration with the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE).
Currently, 16 of the state’s local school systems (there are 24) have developed plans for returning children to schools for some form of in-person instruction this calendar year, including students with special needs.
MSDE State Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Karen Salmon said that based on the state’s improving health metrics, she is urging local school systems to reevaluate their modes of instruction at the end of the first quarter. The state is making $10 million in grant funding available to help systems that move toward in-person instruction.
The Health Metrics released the same day are:
The statewide positivity rate is now 3.3%, a decline of more than 87% since it peaked on April 17 at 26.91%.
Maryland’s positivity rate has now been under 5%, the benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization and the CDC, since June 25, and has been under 4% since Aug. 8.
Last week, for the first time, the COVID-19 positivity rate for all 24 jurisdictions in Maryland fell below the 5% milestone. Currently, 17 of the state’s jurisdictions have positivity rates below 3.5%.
The positivity rate among Marylanders under the age of 35 has declined by 44% since July 23, and has now fallen below 4%, to 3.79%. The positivity rate among Marylanders 35 and older has dropped below 3% and is now 2.97%.
Montgomery County’s positivity rate was 2.4% on Monday and had been declining for 12 days.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and County Council reacted together on Saturday.
“Montgomery County, like other school districts in the State, spent months planning for opening the school year virtually. It did consider a hybrid in-person and virtual learning approach, but after reviewing the situation and consulting with public health experts and others, decided to teach virtually. We support Montgomery County Public Schools' (MCPS) decision, which was based on data and science and was made to keep our children, teachers and education professionals safe.
“We are dismayed and perplexed that Governor Hogan made this announcement just days before students return to school. MCPS has been proactive and deliberate in its approach in creating and maintaining a safe and healthy environment in our schools. We understand the importance of getting our kids back in the classroom, but how we do that has far reaching implications for the entire community.
“Switching plans for a school system with 165,000 students and 24,000 staff cannot happen overnight. MCPS has outlined a blended virtual learning model that, when the time is right, will be implemented. Until that time, we request that the Governor support our local school system and its deliberative approach to educating children in the face of this pandemic.”
Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jack R. Smith responded Friday.
“We thank Governor Larry Hogan and State Superintendent Karen Salmon for their guidance on the return to in-person instruction for local school districts.
“However, we are deeply disappointed by the last-minute announcement of this critical information for school systems. MCPS will begin the school year in a virtual-only instructional model on Aug. 31, as scheduled. We know many in our community will have questions about what this new guidance means for our students. Please allow us time to thoughtfully assess these important developments and continue to prepare for a successful start to the school year.
“As we shared earlier this month, we are working with county health officials on a process that will allow us to bring in small groups of students, such as students in specific special education programs.
“Our focus remains on the academic needs and the health and safety of our students and staff.”
In an Aug. 25 letter, Dr. Travis Gayles said “based upon the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, I would not recommend in-person instruction for students inside school buildings at this time. I recommend investing in a virtual instruction model until, at earliest, the completion of the first quarter in November, with consideration for virtual instruction through the first semester.”