ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Thursday “urgently” called on local school systems to return to hybrid in-person learning by no later than March 1.

During a news conference at St. John’s College in Annapolis, the governor said there was “no public health reason” to keep kids out of schools due to COVID-19, adding virtual learning could lead to significant learning losses, especially among students of color and those from low-income families.

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“I understand that in earlier stages of the pandemic, that this was a very difficult decision for county school boards to make,” Hogan said, “but we know so much more now than we did back then. There can no longer be any debate at all. It is abundantly clear that the toll of keeping students out of school far exceeds any potential risk having students in school where they belong.”

State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon said recovery plans for hybrid and full in-person learning were approved at the state level in August and pushed schools to implement them immediately.

Parents who still want to continue with all-virtual learning should be able to do so, she added.

Last week, Salmon announced schools would get a combined $781 million in additional federal funding to help with reopening and COVID-19 recovery. Baltimore City Public Schools got more than $197 million, the most money of any state school system.

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The state’s health department issued new guidance on school reopening based on a number of factors. That guidance includes two different plans, one of which calls for daily in-person learning for those with special learning needs as well as those with disabilities, those who have struggled with virtual learning and students in career and technology paths.

The first plan, which the state’s health department recommends, also allows elementary schools to go to either phased in-person or hybrid learning if safety requirements can’t be met, while secondary schools would have either hybrid learning or in-person learning if health requirements can be implemented.

The second plan also calls for daily in-person classes for students with the greatest need, hybrid or phased in-person learning for elementary school students and remote or hybrid learning for secondary students.

Department of Health Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services Dr. Jinlene Chan said reopening schools elsewhere has not appeared to have a significant effect on community transmission.

Chan stressed that while COVID-19 vaccines have begun to become available for educators and other school staff, reopening decisions should not be based on vaccination availability for or levels among staff.

She also highlighted the emotional toll COVID-19 isolation is having on students as well as the disruption of other services typically delivered at schools like lunches.

“Research shows that many students as a result of this prolonged pandemic isolation, including school closures, are falling behind academically and those will have long-lasting impacts unless we can turn the tide now,” she said.

If schools don’t make a good faith effort to move toward some form of in-person learning, Hogan said the state will consider “every legal avenue at our disposal.” He added the decision ultimately falls on local officials and that he doesn’t have the authority to force schools to reopen.

Hogan and Salmon sent a letter to Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost Thursday, saying in part “the roadblocks to resuming in-person instruction must cease.”

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The teachers’ union responded on social media, writing in part “instead of moving goalposts and trying to scare educators, let’s focus on what we need to do to open schools safely and sustainably.”

 

The head of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Maryland State Education Association, told WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren that teaching is a “close-contact profession.”

She stressed teachers want to get back to work but said they still have safety concerns.

 

“It is very disheartening to hear the governor make threats against educators who are working so hard and have been since the beginning of this pandemic,“ Bost told Helgren. “I personally felt uplifted yesterday with a new era and how we’re going to treat people in the Biden-Harris administration. Then, today, hearing our governor chastise and threaten our educators who are doing all that they can. It does not make our educators feel respected in the State of Maryland.”

The Baltimore Teachers’ Union issued a similar statement:

“City Schools staff desperately want to be back in buildings working with children in person, the work we’re passionate about and have dedicated our lives to, but only when it’s safe. Baltimore City’s positivity rate and case rate exceed the thresholds set forth in the state’s own guidance on school reopening decisions. Our facilities have not completed their ventilation upgrades and our staff have not been vaccinated. If the Governor is serious about solving the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic and getting students back into school buildings, he can focus on accelerating the vaccine rollout and getting City Schools the resources they need to create healthy learning environments.”

Republican delegates Nic Kipke and Kathy Szeliga praised Hogan’s push to move schools toward in-person learning.

“Reopening schools has been a priority for Maryland’s families,” Szeliga said. “Many parents have struggled to meet the educational needs of their children during this pandemic. Students have battled a myriad of obstacles and many have fallen behind. It is hard to say how long it will take our students to recover from the lapses in their education, they must return to in-person learning as soon as possible.”

Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, meanwhile, said Hogan’s announcement was “bullying.”

“This is a shocking statement. With the state’s vaccine rollout a complete mess, @GovLarryHogan is threatening teachers – including those with pre-existing conditions – if they have concerns about teaching in person,” he tweeted.

Earlier this week, Hogan unveiled his Fiscal Year 2022 budget, which includes $7.5 billion for K-12 schools.

Watch the full news conference below:

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For the latest information on coronavirus go to the Maryland Health Department’s website or call 211. You can find all of WJZ’s coverage on coronavirus in Maryland here.

CBS Baltimore Staff