Here is the text of the letter sent by Coalition of Maryland Parents and Students (COMPS):

Dear Governor Hogan and Superintendent Salmon:

We are the Coalition of Maryland Parents and Students (COMPS), representing 20 counties, 22,000 families, and 800,000 students. Maryland’s children have suffered through a year of virtual learning because of widespread, unscientific policies that have deprioritized their academic, mental and physical health, and made them pawns in a game of power politics between school systems, local leaders, and teachers’ unions. Sadly, this gridlock has led to Maryland’s outlier status as one of the states providing the least amount of live instruction to their public school students. With 80% of public schools providing live instruction around the country, as well as countless private schools, there is no excuse for any child in Maryland to still be relegated to inferior online learning.

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The counties in Maryland that have started returning students to classrooms have reported great success, with seamless and safe reintegration, teachers beaming with pride and elated children who report a huge improvement in learning and morale. However, far too many counties are phasing-in at a snail’s pace, dramatically inhibiting the days students will have in the classroom before summer break. In addition, barring guidance from the state, many school districts remain wedded to a hybrid format of learning, reducing those minimal in-person opportunities 50% further.

You were instrumental in moving our school boards to reopen, and we need your help again to (1) accelerate unnecessarily drawn-out phasing-in plans and (2) provide immediate health and safety guidance to our school superintendents to get our children back into school 5 days a week this spring. We believe more aggressive tactics are needed to push recalcitrant districts who are not sensing the urgency we, as parents, are witnessing firsthand.

Delayed Opening and Long Phase-In Plans

While many districts have followed your demand to reopen schools by March 1, many have completely flouted this deadline. Montgomery and Howard Counties just began returning students this week, while Prince Georges and Charles Counties do not plan to reopen until mid-April. These counties, comprising 43% of the student population of Maryland, have not made a good faith effort to adhere to your directive.

In addition to delaying reopening, several counties have inappropriately long phasing-in plans. While most other school systems in the region (and around the country) are returning students over one to three weeks, Howard County is taking four weeks, Baltimore County is taking five weeks, and Montgomery County and Baltimore City are both taking six weeks to return all students to classrooms. Last week, Montgomery County proposed a tentative acceleration to their plan, after immense pressure from parents. However, this so-called “acceleration” is only bringing back the final two grades a mere one week earlier. This abysmal “reopening” effort mocks your March 1 call and is resulting in 41% of Maryland’s students returning to school in April and May, with many missing over 400 days of live instruction. Absent your immediate intervention, some of our students are currently set to have only 15 in-person school days through the remainder of the school year.

Some attribute these slow phasing-in plans to challenges purportedly presented by the size of our state’s counties. That is no excuse. Fairfax County, VA, with 187,000 students, is phasing in over two weeks. Jefferson County, KY, with 101,000 students is taking three weeks. Dekalb County Schools in Georgia, CharlotteMecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, and Shelby County schools in Tennessee, all with over 100,000 students, took just one week to bring back all students. Clearly, size is not the issue and does not justify this bare minimum effort to reverse Maryland’s education crisis. We need state leadership to be more vocal about the urgency of the situation and for you to follow through with repercussions that you implied would befall uncooperative districts. Please help all students that wish to return to school in Maryland to do so no later than the first week of April. Extending returns to mid-April and May is truly unacceptable and reckless, particularly given the demonstrated declining mental health of too many of Maryland’s students.

Full Return – 5 Days a Week

We also ask for you to issue new health and safety guidance that many Maryland school superintendents have requested so that they may return all willing students back to school five days a week this spring.

Intervention at the state level to fully reopen schools is a growing trend, particularly in areas like ours, where local politics have kept schools shuttered. Governors and state leaders in Iowa, Massachusetts, Illinois, and West Virginia have recently updated distancing guidance to enable the full return of students to classrooms this spring. In neighboring Virginia, Senate Bill 1303, passed with bipartisan support, requires schools to offer full-time in-person instruction. Even New Mexico, once sharing Maryland’s outlier status as one of the most virtual states, has decided to fully reopen their doors. The positive experience they had providing hybrid instruction over the last month sparked the New Mexico Public Education Department to return all willing students by April 5.

Full return to classrooms is essential to fix the incalculable academic, mental, and physical damages our children have incurred from a year of virtual learning. Learning in classrooms five days a week, off screens, directly engaged with teachers and among peers, is the education all children need and deserve. With typical school facilities, the only feasible way to reopen schools fulltime is to relax the outdated and unnecessary six-foot social distancing requirement. Fortunately, when schools mandate masking and employ basic ventilation improvements, there can be flexibility in distancing while maintaining safety.

The six-foot rule was established before we knew how effectively masks work to curb the spread of the coronavirus, even at close distances. Six feet is simply unnecessary in situations like schools where good practices are continuously enforced. A meta-analysis of 172 studies has found that three-feet is sufficient to significantly reduce the risk of viral exposure. Additionally, a new important study from Massachusetts shows no difference in infection rates between schools using a six-foot rule to those using a three-foot rule. Many public health experts, including the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics, support the three-foot rule for live instruction when the alternative is virtual. With three-foot spacing and ordinary PPE, we can keep schools safe while fitting 50 to 300 percent more children into classrooms to enable full reopening.

France, Britain, and other European nations that have prioritized their students have reopened their schools using a three-foot rule. Likewise, in the US, 49% of public schools are open five days a week for live instruction enabled by relaxing the six-foot distancing requirement. Data collected by OpenFCPS, a parent-led organization advocating for school reopening in Fairfax County, VA reported that, as of late January, of the 75 largest school districts in the country, 86% did not follow a strict six-foot distancing requirement.

In the absence of comprehensive school reopening guidance in Maryland, and recognizing the essential need for students to be back in school full time, several Maryland districts are developing their own policies and protocols to accomplish this. Carroll County, the first in the state to bring back students for hybrid learning in January, has already announced plans to bring back all students for at least four days a week by March 22 and for a five day return in the fall, if not sooner. Their new safety protocol states that they will distance “as much as space allows”. Similarly, Cecil and Harford Counties will be starting four days a week for all students in coming weeks and the latter has plans to reopen fully in the fall. On the eastern shore, Somerset and Worcester Counties have already welcomed back all students for full time instruction in February and March, respectively. While these counties should be commended for their forward-thinking leadership, they only represent 10% of the student population of Maryland.

Slavish adherence to six-foot distancing in most counties has precluded the rest of Maryland’s students from fully returning to school. Superintendents in several of these districts including Montgomery, Allegany, Cecil, Frederick, and Worcester have publicly expressed a willingness to use a three-foot rule in schools, but would only do so with explicit, written guidance from the state. Moreover, teachers’ unions have already expressed opposition to these changes, even if they come from the CDC, therefore, strong pressure from state leadership in addition to new guidance will be critical to fully reopen Maryland’s schools.

Meanwhile, many students that wish to return to school in MD counties using hybrid learning must rot on waitlists, an unfortunate trend that is also occurring in DCPS. Given that fear is stronger in communities of color, there is every reason to believe that, as we reopen and gain confidence in the system, these families will be overwhelmingly populating these wait lists. This is transparently inequitable. Children of color are among those suffering the most from virtual learning. With more failing grades and far fewer enrolling in college this year, these are the very students that are acutely in need of immediate return. Waitlists are unacceptable. All children deserve live instruction and three-foot distancing would safely allow it. Please update official state guidance for schools to use three-feet of physical distance between students so that our schools can reopen safely for full time instruction this spring.

Over this past year, Maryland’s children have been made to needlessly suffer with remote learning while millions of other children throughout America have been able to return to school (or never left). Once a leader of education in the country, Maryland now has an incredible task of fixing this educational disaster that has been thrust upon our children. Full return is the only way to halt learning loss, improve student mental health, and bring back a sense of normalcy that our children richly deserve.

Sincerely,

  • Parents for Reopening Allegany County Schools
  • Open Anne Arundel County Schools
  • Baltimore County Parent and Student Coalition
  • Reopen Caroline County Schools
  • Reopen Charles County Schools
  • Calvert Parents United
  • Reopen Carroll County Schools
  • Open Cecil County Schools
  • Open Dorchester County Schools
  • Reopen Harford County Schools
  • ReOpen FCPS (Frederick County)
  • Fully Reopen HoCo Schools (Howard County)
  • Open Kent County Schools Open MCPS (TogetherAgainMCPS)
  • Open Prince George’s County Schools
  • Open Queen Anne’s County Schools
  • Open Talbot County Schools
  • Open Somerset County Schools
  • Open Wicomico County School Coastal Community Collaborative (Return to Learn in Worcester County)

You can view the PDF of the letter here:  COMPS letter

The Facebook group “Fully Re-Open Howard County Schools!” has more than 1,200 members as of this post.

Scott E