UPDATED: Worcester Opts Against In-Person Instruction This Week; Health Department, Teachers Union Opposed Bringing Teachers, Students Back

UPDATED: Worcester Opts Against In-Person Instruction This Week; Health Department, Teachers Union Opposed Bringing Teachers, Students Back
File photo of Showell Elementary School

NEWARK – Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Lou Taylor reaffirmed his commitment to bringing students back to schools this week despite the latest delay in resuming in-person instruction.

Though Worcester County Public Schools postponed a return to in-person learning that was set to begin Jan. 4 after input from the local health department and teachers union, Taylor told the Worcester County Commissioners Tuesday he was still working to get students back into schools.

“I want you to know as the body of commissioners that my goal is to get our kids back in school,” he said. “’I’m 100% trying to find every way to do that.”

Though Taylor told families last Tuesday that some students would return to in-person learning Jan. 4, on Jan. 2 he told parents the Worcester County Health Department had requested that distance learning continue. His announcement came after the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA) and Worcester County Education Support Personnel Association (WCESPA) submitted a letter in opposition to returning to in-person learning Jan. 4.

The school system initially confirmed longstanding plans to return a small group of students to schools last Tuesday with a message citing the robust training staff had received regarding COVID-19 that would allow the school system to return to some in-person learning. Two days later, however, the health department reached out to Taylor as well as the leaders of the county’s private schools to share the latest health metrics, which at the time included a positivity rate of 13.96% and a case rate of 50.8 per 100,000.

“As you are aware, these metrics are well above the threshold for recommending limited or no in person programs per the State of Maryland COVID 19 Guidance for Maryland Schools,” wrote Debra Stevens, director of community health for the Worcester County Health Department, in an email to public school and private school administrators. “We encourage you to reconsider in person learning until these metrics have significantly reduced.”

Two days later, Gary McCabe, UniServ director for WCTA and WCESPA, wrote Taylor a letter asking for a delay to in-person learning. McCabe said COVID-19 rates were significantly higher than they were when Taylor closed schools for in-person learning in November.

“Your decision to disregard state guidelines and return to in-person instruction is politically untenable for us,” the letter reads. “It does not reflect the sentiment of our members. It follows neither the letter nor the spirit of the guidelines. It does not comport with your fellow superintendents, who have similar and high infection rates in their county’s. Your decision gives us no solid political ground upon which to support your decision.”

The letter continued, “We do not consider you our adversary, but we are unable to support your decision to return to in-person instruction as of January 4, 2021,” the letter reads. “WCTA and WCESPA can support staff returning to work at school, as we believe that all safety measures can be accommodated with that number of people in the buildings. We understand that employees and their school age children (only) returning to buildings is not the solution you desire, but we recognize that this option is much safer for all involved.”

Taylor released a message Saturday night delaying the Jan. 4 return.

“First, I apologize immensely for the contents of this message as it is a change to the messaging that we sent out on Tuesday, December 29,” he said. “I hope that you understand that it is unavoidable. While we were planning on a return to in-person instruction for small groups of students on Monday, the Worcester County Health Department has requested that we return instead with students engaged in distance learning on January 4. Therefore, all Worcester County Public Schools will remain in distance learning for the week of January 4-8.  We will continue to assess all health and safety information throughout the next week and, as I indicated in my prior message, I will communicate with you and our families on or before Friday, January 8.”

When asked about the letter from the WCTA, Taylor said in a statement this week he welcomed all input.

“As we have since the beginning of this pandemic, the leadership of Worcester County Public Schools continues to welcome all feedback from our school system community on these important decisions,” he said. “As evident from the public debate occurring throughout our community, there are strong feelings on both sides of the decision to return students to in-person learning. We certainly recognize that the best place for students to learn is within the classroom environment, and we remain committed to following our Responsible Return plan, so all those students wishing to return back to the classroom can do so as soon as we can safely allow.”

Some parents are hopeful in-person learning will resume as soon as possible. A change.org petition titled “Open Worcester County Schools” was created Monday. A local emergency room doctor, Dr. Brian DelliGatti, along with others, created a Facebook group called Coastal Community Collaborative-Return to Learn that now has more than 430 members. DelliGatti also wrote a letter to the WCTA in response to the letter it sent Taylor. He said he was part of a group of more than 30 medical professionals, including physicians, mental health professionals, educators and social workers, among others, that supported “the safe return of students and staff to in-person learning.”

“Our collaborative’s goal is to involve all of the key stakeholders in the process of developing a responsible and safe resumption of in-person learning, recognizing the significant limitations virtual learning presents, resulting in severely impaired educational attainment, loss of vital social support structure for children suffering with food insecurity, neglectful and abusive home environments, and the exacerbation of pre-existing socioeconomic disparities within our public school system,” he wrote.

DelliGatti stressed the group’s desire to work collaboratively with all of the stakeholders involved to bring kids back to schools.

“Our group contends that the tremendously impactful and tangible detrimental effects that the prolonged and ongoing school closures have perpetuated are persisting unjustifiably and are unsupported in the medical literature,” he wrote. “These views are not unique to this coalition and are supported by our national health experts including Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Anthony Fauci.   There is a compelling body of medical literature demonstrating reassuringly low rates of student and staff transmission of COVID-19 that is additionally bolstered by data indicating that educators face no greater risk than other comparatively low-risk front-line workers.  I would be happy to share this information with your organization in more detail at your convenience.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.