ANNAPOLIS (March 22, 2021)—Since the beginning of the phased reopening of Maryland's public schools on March 1 at the urging of Gov. Larry Hogan, parents and educators and administrators have raised concerns about the feasibility of the process and what the motivation behind that decision might have been.
Some of the questions include: Is it safe to reopen? Have a sufficient amount of teachers and staff been vaccinated? Is enough PPE available to schools? Did politics play a role in the decision to reopen?
"Inconsistent, rushed, kind of figure it out as you go," Howard County Education Association President Colleen Morris said of the beginning of the reopening process in an interview with MarylandReporter.com.
Morris said that prior to Hogan's urging schools to reopen Howard County was already in the process developing plans to return small groups of students to the classroom.
"The governor can say anything he wants to say. It's local boards that decide the implementation."
Morris said she supports reopening schools but wishes that it could have been done more safely.
"It's not that I don't think students and staff shouldn't be coming back to school. I just think we should be doing it safely and thoughtfully … It seems that there is a lot of politics involved with the reopening of schools. And I would rather that be put aside."
Morris said most of the teachers in Howard County can expect to get two reusable cotton masks every six to eight weeks.
"They have an inside and an outside. They are 2-ply. It hasn't been six to eight weeks (since the reopening). So I don't know how that's going to be replenished."
Morris said the situation is a little bit better for the county's speech and language pathologists, who have been getting two clear see-through masks each week. Morris said that initially only one mask was provided each week. However, she noted that steady progress is being made in the distribution of PPE to teachers and staff.
Jason Flanagan, a high school English teacher with the Prince George's County school system, said PPE supply has not been a major issue where he teaches. However, Flanagan noted that many teachers have used their own money to supplement what has been already been provided by the school system.
"You hear the CEO say one thing and you hear someone else say another. So it's unclear exactly what the mask policy is. As far as I know, it has not been an issue for teachers … I'm sure a lot of teachers are out there buying masks … As far as I can tell teachers have their own stuff. "
Flanagan, who is a COVID-19 survivor, said he believes Prince George's County schools were not prepared to reopen on March 1 because the county is still lagging behind most of the other jurisdictions in the state in terms of vaccinating its residents.
"Prince George's County wasn't ready yet. There's still a concern in that community. There are still issues. And you even see it know where PG county residents can't get vaccinated because everybody is coming from outside the county to use up the ones at Six Flags (mass vaccination site)…March 1 was just not the best time. But I know that county is doing what it can with what is has."
MarylandReporter.com asked Senate President Bill Ferguson in an online press gaggle on Friday afternoon if he had any concerns about the reopening process and reports that PPE for schools may be in short supply.
Ferguson said he is glad the state is taking a phased approach to reopening and is not familiar with any major problems related to the supply of PPE.
"I think the faster we get these vaccines out the better it will be. I haven't heard of any terribly concerning experiences with a lack of PPE."
Ferguson relayed that he recently visited the mass vaccination site at the Baltimore Convention Center field hospital where there was an "unbelievable amount of PPE in storage" and said that that supply should be distributed to jurisdictions across the state where it may be needed.
"That is a solvable problem. PPE should not be an issue moving forward. If it is, it needs to be fixed immediately. We need to get kids back in. We have to do it safely. It's not going to be everyone. It's going to be on a voluntary basis. But we have to start that engine again because it is necessary for so many parts of our society to re-function."
Maryland State Department of Education spokesperson Lora Rakowski defended the decision to reopen schools, saying that it is safe to do so provided that recommended health guidelines are followed.
"The science consistently shows that schools can open safely and effectively with the public health guidance established by the CDC and MDH. Today's Board presentation on metrics for the second grading period demonstrates how much our children are struggling academically during this pandemic, compounding the emotional and social toll they are experiencing. This evidence underscores why it is so important to return all students as soon as possible to in-person instruction, especially those who have been most severely impacted by school closures."