ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) -- All county school systems in Maryland are authorized to safely reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, though decisions will be made at the local level, Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday.
Hogan, Maryland State Department of Education Superintendent Karen Salmon and Maryland Department of Health Acting Deputy Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan made the announcement at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The trio provided a list of metrics the health and education departments recommend school systems use to determine when to reopen or whether to offer hybrid, in-person learning. Among the metrics are test positivity rates and case rates per 100,000 people.
Chan said all counties are at a level where some form of in-person learning could take place.
Should an outbreak occur, Chan said local health and school officials would weigh what steps need to be taken, including whether to re-close schools.
Schools that reopen will still need to follow physical distancing guidelines and should follow cleaning and disinfection guidelines.
The governor said there is "broad and overwhelming agreement" among parents, education experts and public health leaders that finding a safe way for kids to go back to school should be a top priority.
While he won't order schools to reopen, Hogan said local school officials should review their reopening plans using the new guidance.
"Our Maryland economy is getting back on track and making a steady recovery, but in order for us to keep moving forward and to keep making progress, it is absolutely critical that we begin the process of getting our children safely and gradually back into the classrooms," Hogan said.
He added parents had been expressing frustrations that while the state's coronavirus metrics were improving, no changes were being made to reopening plans.
"Every single day I hear from parents, all across the state who are extremely frustrated with the fact that even though our health metrics statewide and in every single county look great and are continuing to dramatically improve, some of the county school boards have not even attempted to develop any safe reopening plans which would bring any kids back for any form of in-person instruction," Hogan said, calling that unacceptable.
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Of the 24 public school systems in the state, 16 have plans that include some form of in-person learning during the fall, while eight, including Baltimore and Harford counties, plan to keep students learning online through the end of the first semester.
Salmon strongly encouraged school systems to re-evaluate how they plan to educate students by the end of the first quarter of the school year, especially if they planned to keep virtual learning in place through January.
In addition, the state is making $10 million in grant funding available to schools to help them move back toward in-person learning.
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Maryland State Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter that expecting schools to switch to in-person learning days before classes are set to resume is "unreasonable."
"We'd likely have more local school district consistency on reopening if the State had provided *any* guidance whatsoever prior to TEN DAYS before the planned start of SY 2020-21," he tweeted.
The Maryland State Education Association called Thursday's announcement "a recipe for chaos and confusion."
"The state abdicated responsibility for months for creating reopening standards & told districts to develop their own plans. Now they undercut hard decisions schools have made to keep students & educators safe days before the year begins," the union tweeted.
Baltimore City Public Schools plan to have a virtual reopening town hall at 6 p.m. Thursday.
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