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‘I don’t sleep at night’: Maryland school leaders look for added guidance on school reopenings

Maryland State Senate President Bill Ferguson and state Sen. Paul Pinsky spoke with school leaders from Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Talbot County.

Legislative leaders and school superintendents from urban, rural and suburban school districts in Maryland say more standardized guidance is needed to help schools as they move from virtual to in-person learning as conditions regarding the spread of COVID-19 allow.

Maryland State Senate President Bill Ferguson and state Sen. Paul Pinsky spoke with school leaders from Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Talbot County.

“To me, it feels like this is a classic example of there is no right answer here,” Ferguson said, regarding how to reopen schools in the 23 counties and Baltimore City.

Ferguson, who is a teacher and has three children, said: “As a parent of a first- and a third-grader, I would love to see those kids back in school, but I understand that there are rightfully very serious health concerns from staff members.”

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Among the issues that superintendents say they’re dealing with are situations that aren’t necessarily spelled out in CDC guidelines for what’s needed in school buildings.

Dr. Kellly Griffith, the superintendent of schools for Talbot County, said a statewide standard on things such as safety protocols in schools would be helpful.

“Having that statewide consistency would build confidence in our staff to return to school,” she said.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises said that it was only in a tour of a school building that officials spotted some situations that could pose problems in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

In entering a building, she said, officials immediately recognized the problems that arise for school staff that interact with large numbers of students, staff and visitors.

“School secretaries need to have desk shields. They need to have some partition in the same way that when you go to a bank now, a doctor’s office now, the receptionist is behind Plexiglas,” Santelises said.

Yet, she said, that’s not spelled out in guidelines for opening schools.

Another issue Santelises said was a concern: delays in getting test results for COVID-19.

During summer school, she said, “We thought an employee might have contracted COVID and it turned out that the employee did not have COVID, but it took 10 to 12 days to learn that.”

Montgomery County Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith agreed with the need for faster test results, saying, “Rapid testing is going to be critical to physically occupying school buildings with staff and students.”

The issue of being able to supply personal protective equipment to schools — and having enough on hand throughout the year — also came up.

Smith said there are questions of not only how much to have on hand, but exactly what type of equipment to have.

“We’ve been ordering lots of stuff — but we’ve been ordering stuff based on the judgment in our community, not based on a kind of standard of what is the best practice in school,” he said.

From the very first closure of schools in Maryland in March, school officials said the closures would be easier than coming up with plans to reopen schools during the pandemic.

During Thursday’s meeting, leaders also discussed the complexity of reopening.

Pinsky, who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee in Annapolis, asked school leaders about being able to ensure that every school will have all the staff needed to reopen for in-person instruction.

“How do you resolve that issue, if those numbers don’t quite match up in terms of a staffing model of in-person teaching?” he asked.

In response, Griffith said, “That’s why I don’t sleep at night.”

Santelises added that is why it is critical that school leaders across the state can demonstrate that they have standards in place for “safe, responsible and adaptable” ways to open schools.

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