NEWARK – Worcester County Public Schools leaders continue to plan for students to begin returning to classrooms at the end of September.
In the wake of an announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan last week that all school systems were authorized to begin reopening, Superintendent Lou Taylor said Worcester County would continue to adhere to its Responsible Return model. The model calls for small groups of students to begin returning to school Sept. 28.
“I want to say plainly that our plans are not changing and this is due to the fact that our model is right in line with what the governor and state superintendent outlined in their remarks,” Taylor said in a video posted on the school system’s website. “In fact, the governor’s remarks further affirm that Worcester’s Responsible Return model is one that places a high value on bringing students back into the classroom as quickly and as safely as possible.”
In a press conference last Thursday, Hogan authorized school systems to begin reopening now that COVID-19 numbers are trending downward.
“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,” Hogan said. “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.”
State Superintendent Karen Salmon urged school systems to reevaluate their mode of instruction at the end of the first quarter. The state will be making $10 million in grant funding available to help school systems move toward in-person instruction.
“While adherence to these metrics for re-entry into classrooms are not considered requirements, I am strongly encouraging local school systems to utilize our improving numbers and the provided metrics as the driving force for the decision to return to school buildings,” Salmon said. “Health and safety precautions must remain in place once we begin to bring more students back into schools, and school systems should continue to work in conjunction with local health officials to monitor trends in the metrics and any outbreaks at area schools.”
She said that while 16 school systems had submitted plans for reopening, eight had not. Salmon stressed that with the state’s improving metrics school systems needed to make plans for resuming in-person instruction.
“Many school systems have demonstrated tremendous leadership and initiative by bringing small groups of students back in a safe environment,” she said. “In counties like Calvert and Worcester, over the summer we saw how in-person instruction can be provided to small groups of students during the pandemic.”
Worcester County Public Schools, which submitted its plan for reopening to the state in early August, will begin the school year Sept. 8 with distance learning for all students. Officials are planning for small groups of students to return to school buildings on Sept. 28. After a successful in-person summer school program, local education officials are looking forward to welcoming limited numbers of students back into buildings later this month.
“We know that the best place for our students to learn is within our classrooms with our teachers and with their peers,” Taylor said. “This is precisely why in early August we announced that while Worcester will begin the school year in stage one, distance learning, at the recommendation of our local health department as long as health and safety conditions allow we anticipate moving into stage two on Monday September 28 which will begin the process of phasing students back into the classroom adhering to the health and safety protocols developed in tandem with our local officials.”
Taylor added that families would still be able to continue with distance learning once schools reopened if they felt that was the best option for their children.
“We remain committed to ensuring the health and safety of all of our students, faculty and staff,” he said. “We will continue down the path we have developed for our responsible return and we look forward to welcoming students back into our classrooms and schools as soon as we can.”
Though Worcester County’s school system plans align with state guidance, some educators throughout the state believe Hogan and Salmon are making “reckless and arbitrary decisions that will make the first days and weeks of an already stressful start of school even more chaotic and confusing,” according to an online petition sponsored by the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA). The petition, signed by more than 15,000 people, calls for the state board of education to reject a proposal from Salmon regarding virtual learning standards.
“At a time when educators are focused on working hard to make the best of this year for students, the governor and superintendent are focused on throwing school communities under the bus,” reads a statement from MSEA President Cheryl Bost. “We need collaboration and problem-solving, not political theater.”
Bost said that after telling school systems to develop their own plans for reopening, state leaders were now second guessing the decisions local officials had made.