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

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis.

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Superintendent of Schools Dr. 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 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.”

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.”

In Queen Anne’s a petition started via the online platform Change.org on Feb. 1 had garnered nearly 500 signatures by early Wednesday evening. The petition form states, “The science says in-person learning is paramount to our students’ mental health and success in academics.”

“As of today our children have not seen the inside of a school in 325 days,” wrote parent Mandy Caulk.

Signers of the petition support a return to school plan being implemented for in-person learning as soon as possible. Since September, the Board of Education had not been able to agree on a solid return date.

The meeting of the board scheduled for Feb. 3 would address that plan. Signers were encouraged to also sign up to speak during the public comment period of the meeting to express their concerns.

Parent of four students who had passed successfully through QACPS on to college, Tracy Smith, now has two younger children still in the school system. “The teachers and Superintendent are lowering the bar for kids and my last two are feeling the effects socially, emotionally ,and mentally these last few months,” she wrote.

Smith said she blames the teacher’s union and contracts for preventing teachers from returning to school. Still, said Smith, “administrators have been non-stop keeping all schools running with a skeleton crew? God Bless all of them and thank you for trying! We will keep fighting.”

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