Local Officials Offer Confused Message on School Reopenings

By Sam S ’24

Opening schools during the current COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be an extremely difficult decision for local school leaders and their colleagues. This situation has become even more complicated because of the conflicting information given to Montgomery County school leaders from local, state, and federal officials. 

At the end of November, Montgomery County health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles wrote that in-person learning was inadvisable n a letter to local school leaders.  “Current data shows that COVID-19 cases attributed to exposure in schools have been low. However, maintaining low levels of in-school transmissions will become more difficult as the cases continue to soar throughout the community, leading to more disruptions in learning.” He also said that schools are recommended to stop in-person learning and return to virtual learning until the number of cases per one hundred thousand residents goes below fifteen. 

Contrary to Dr. Travis Gayles’ statements, Maryland’s State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon and Governor Larry Hogan believe that students should be brought back to in-person school even if only a small number of students can attend. In late October, Salmon cited the detrimental social and academic effects on students, along with low infection numbers, as key reasons to bring students back to school. She was frustrated that the two largest jurisdictions for Maryland public school education, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, are not bringing their students back for in-person learning. Center for Disease Control director Dr. Robert Redfield seconded Salmon’s concern, stating that, despite recent increase of infections in Montgomery County, the DMV, and around the world, “one of the safest places [kids in K-12] can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school.” 

Headmaster Robert Kosasky said that the conflicting information between different officials made the situation more complex. In late July, Mr. Kosasky closely followed Dr. Travis Gayles’ statement that it was unsafe to open schools in person.While Montgomery County released its statement about one and a half months before school opened, Governor Larry Hogan did not release his guidance about opening school until late August, after St. Andrew’s had made its call to stay closed.

 Mr. Kosasky said he views state metrics about the current pandemic as the most important governmental guidance for St. Andrew’s. He also emphasized the importance of government organizations in continuing to develop our understanding of the coronavirus. He explained, “The CDC is the primary government agency that issues guidance. Their guidance has changed frequently as the scientific understanding of COVID-19 and the possibility of infection have changed.” For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was great concern about coronavirus transmission through surfaces. Now, however, we know that the risk of transmission through surfaces is much lower than previously believed, and guidelines have been updated. 

In terms of St. Andrew’s’ success in safely managing hybrid learning during the end of the first trimester, Mr. Kosasky credited the wearing of masks, maintaining social distance, and following all other safety protocols. He proudly reflected, “We have had 0 infections on campus in hybrid to date.” The coronavirus cases we have seen in our school have been spread from outside communities. 

Since speaking with Mr. Kosasky, situations have changed on campus. St. Andrew’s has returned to distance learning with a tentative return-to-campus date of January 8th. The school accredited this change to a rise of cases in the area, not specifically mentioning if St. Andrew’s had directly been hit with a surge of cases.

Hopefully, state, federal, and local officials can come to some agreement on school openings in the future. Nonetheless, school leaders will be forced to make more difficult decisions as COVID-19 continues to ravage communities across the country.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2020-21 Print Edition, the full version can be viewed here