Gov. Larry Hogan said last week public education decisions will remain local based on jurisdictional conditions, but he said the choices should adhere to the state’s guidance for schools. Therein lies the problem because the health metrics set by the state to operate in-person schooling are too onerous and hurt our children. Therefore, it’s the health data making the decisions and not the local officials who know their counties best.
Public school systems should be able to make school-by-school decisions rather than blanket jurisdiction-wide closures. Based on the guidance from the state, once key figures reach a certain level no in-school instruction can take place throughout the entire county. This is ridiculous, and the public should be up in arms. In-person instruction should still be taking place in Worcester County. As Worcester and Wicomico have done in recent weeks, the local counties should be able to manage positive cases through quarantining and isolating those impacted through a case-by-case methodology. The protocols are in place for a reason. Not only to keep everyone safe within the school, but also to keep the schools open for in-person instruction. The protocols were not created to just be able to open school doors. They were created to remain open. That is if the protocols are working, and officials say they are in this county.
According to the document “COVID-19 Guidance For Maryland Schools,” from the State Department of Education and the Maryland Department of Health, public school systems should move to virtual learning or limited in-person instruction if the positivity case rate exceeds 5% and the seven-day moving average case rate per 100,000 exceeds 15. In the communication from Worcester County schools last Sunday, it was reported the daily positive rate hit 6.6% and 18.3 cases per 100,000 people. On Wednesday, Worcester’s positive rate was actually down to 5.75% but cases per 100,000 elevated to 20.2, compared to Wicomico’s 6.68% and 34.61 cases per 100,000.
If the positivity rate is a key indicator, it should have also been a concern when the first wave of students in Worcester County returned in late September when the average positivity rate was 6.14% from Sept. 21-28. For the same time period, the average case rate per 100,000 was 15.13. These metrics are only slightly over the state caution line, but highlights the importance of looking beyond the data. Worcester County was somehow able to welcome kids back inside in late September but could not this week. There must be a more concerted effort to keep schools open unless there are other significant concerns outside of the health metrics. School leaders must be bold with their decisions. However, even if they had the gall to make the tough calls needed, at this point they are hamstrung by the health guidance set out by the state. Therefore, local jurisdictions do not have the authority to make their own calls, as governor maintained last week.
If the metrics are dominating the decision making, it takes all discretion out of the superintendents’ hands. All parents need to do is simply monitor the coronavirus.maryland.gov website each day for answers on when schools will reopen. The closure calls need to balance the transmission concerns vs. the tremendous mental health pressures on kids, parents and teachers.
What’s most discouraging is moving forward there’s little hope local schools will open anytime soon, despite what school leaders maintain. The positivity rate needs to be below 5% and the case per 100,000 rate needs to be under 15. What’s the odds of that happening soon? Slim at this point. The metrics should only be a part of the equation considered. If it remains the dominate factor, there is no end in sight to virtual learning, which benefits no one. Students are falling behind. Teachers are frustrated and overwhelmed. Parents are stressed and anxious. It’s the spike in those areas I am most concerned about within our community, not the percent of positive tests or the abstract moving average case rate for 100,000 in a county of just over 50,000 residents. Let’s be brave and stop letting data alone drive these decisions.
The last full weekend in September is one to avoid because of the pop-up vehicle event, and resort officials have even gone so far as discouraging visitors because it’s going to be a police state.
I think the concept of extending the annual bike week activities over two weekends is worthwhile to consider. However, in the case of 2021, it’s going to be complicated. As it stands now, OC BikeFest is Sept. 15-19, followed by the unsanctioned, but real, pop-up event the next weekend and Sunfest Sept. 30-Oct. 3. It was discussed this week the bike event would like to grow to two weekends, or even two full weeks. The question being should it expand from its approved date to the week earlier in the month of September or extend further into September, conflicting directly with the pop-up event.
My concern is the pop-up event attendees will simply change their dates once word spreads about the bikers taking two weekends. Maybe that will help dissipate the event attendees, but it could also put the pop-up event on the same weekend as Sunfest. The safe play is to expand the bike event earlier into September because the weekend after Labor Day weekend typically does not feature a major event. It’s a tough call and will need a lot of deliberation in the coming weeks. Whatever decision is made the bold approach is laudable.