Salmon: Schools are 'cleanest and safest' places for students to be during pandemic

State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon is seen here in a photo courtesy of the Executive Office of the Governor at a Jan. 21 news conference with Gov. Larry Hogan, during which Hogan called for schools to reopen by March 1. Salmon reiterated that message during a Jan. 29 meeting with the eastern Shore's General Assembly delegation.

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said Friday schools are the “cleanest and safest” places for students to be as the state continues to grapple with the coronavirus and pandemic-driven learning loss.

Salmon, a former Talbot County superintendent, has pushed for students to return to school buildings for months, but her and other state leaders’ calls for a transition away from virtual learning became louder last week when Gov. Larry Hogan directed all school districts in the state to resume at least some in-person learning by March 1.

The state superintendent said during a Zoom meeting with the Eastern Shore Delegation on Friday she’s seen the lengths schools go to to protect teachers, school staff and students during in-person schooling.

“We don’t need more rules. Schools are clean and safe, and probably better than some of the places where our kids are if they’re not in affluent situations,” she said. “Every school I’ve been in has made incredible efforts to clean and sanitize frequently, having stations where sanitation is available, masking and distancing. It’s been a huge effort.”

Across the Mid-Shore, four of the five school districts already have or plan to send kids back into classrooms at least part time before March, per Hogan’s directive.

Kent County Public Schools was set to return to in-person instruction Monday, but a snowstorm the day before delayed that.

Caroline County Public Schools opened to some students on Jan. 25. Talbot County planned to reopen classrooms to all students on Feb. 1. Dorchester said it plans to meet the March 1 reopening goal. Queen Anne’s County has not yet announced plans to return to in-person schooling.

Queen Anne’s Health Officer Dr. Joseph Ciatola told county lawmakers during a Jan. 12 meeting it was his “medical, ethical and moral opinion” that schools stay shuttered until local COVID-19 metrics improve and vaccinations increase.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote on its website that “opening schools for in-person learning as safely and quickly as possible, and keeping them open, is important given the many known and established benefits of in-person learning.”

“In order to enable in-person learning and assist schools with their day-to-day operations, it is important to adopt and diligently implement actions to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 inside the school and out in the community,” the CDC said. The agency advocates strict adherence to distancing, masking and sanitizing protocols in schools.

Salmon said school districts have used suggested mitigation strategies as an argument to keep schools closed instead of as a means for opening them. She said some school leaders’ interpretation of the guidance is her “frustration” because a six-foot distance “isn’t always feasible” and that’s OK.

“The guidance is very clear. It says, ‘to the extent possible,’ with the six-foot rule,” Salmon said. “I have been in many schools this fall where that’s not always happening because it’s not always feasible, but to the extent possible, we’re distancing kids.

“When we’re in a career and technology center and they’re working on installing a brake, the kids are there with the brake installing it. They’re masked, they’re washing their hands, so the other mitigation tactics are very important.”

While the long-term impact on children from the pandemic’s disruption to learning is not yet fully known, Salmon said the focus when students do return to classrooms should be on their social and emotional needs before their academic goals.

“We need to begin the long, difficult process of identifying where our students are academically, socially and emotionally after the long period of disrupted instruction,” she said, adding, “the longer we keep students in a fully virtual environment, the more these impacts will be.”

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