Talbot public schools report 'successful start'

Christina Longenecker, St. Michael Middle High language arts teacher, meets some of her ninth grade students for the first time.

EASTON — Hundreds of students are set to return in small groups to classrooms across Talbot County’s eight schools starting Monday, Sept. 14 — a move in step with state and county health officials’ data-driven guidance on schooling amid the pandemic.

In a statement to The Star Democrat, Talbot County Public Schools said County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley cleared the school system to proceed with its Monday reopening for special population groups, which include those with special needs, English Language Learners, homeless students and students who do not have internet access.

Roughly 200 students who meet those criteria will be among the first TCPS students to head into their respective school buildings for face-to-face instruction this academic year. The remaining students will continue learning online from a distance until at least October, when the district plans to enter the next phase of its reopening.

TCPS hosted its first day of classes this fall virtually last week on Sept. 8, which the school system reported 94% of students attended. About 275 students did not participate, according to Superintendent Dr. Kelly Griffith, who said internet connectivity issues were to blame.

Connectivity issues are also a challenge for other districts across the Eastern Shore, including Dorchester County Public Schools system, which has acquired and is deploying 700 internet hotspots to help areas that lack access.

To guide their gradual reopening, Talbot schools are relying on the advice of county health officials with whom Griffith is in contact daily reviewing local virus metrics as they pertain to the safety of students and staff, as well as the system’s plan to invite more children back for in-person education through the next several months.

Monday’s reopening development for TCPS comes on the heels of Gov. Larry Hogan’s and State Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon’s urging students’ return to school buildings during an Aug. 27 press conference.

Hogan authorized every school district in Maryland to reopen for some in-person instruction, citing a new virus metric that tracks an area’s new case rate per 100,000 people. The governor said he wanted all districts to “try to get as many kids back into as many classrooms as we can in a safe way.”

TCPS was among 16 of the state’s 24 districts whose initial reopening plans offered some level of in-person learning for students this fall. The governor called it “unacceptable” that some jurisdictions wholly rejected inviting children back at any point during the 2020-2021 school year.

Talbot’s new case rate as of Thursday, Sept. 10, was 8.45 per 100,000, according to Maryland Department of Health data. The county’s case rate falls between the zero to 15 cases per 100,000 range set by MDH as a schools reopening benchmark.

School districts reporting fewer than or equal to 5 cases of the coronavirus per 100,000 people are clear to launch or expand in-person schooling, said Maryland Acting Deputy Secretary of Public Health Services Dr. Jinlene Chan during the Aug. 27 press conference with Hogan.

Jurisdictions reporting 15 or more cases per 100,000 people, Chan said, should limit face-to-face instruction. Those whose case rate lies in between, such as Talbot, qualify to launch hybrid or partially in-person schooling.

When asked whether TCPS was confident in its plan to reopen schools Monday, administrators responded in a joint statement that they would be relying on advice from Wadley to guide their decision-making. Future phases of the five-phase plan, they said, are amenable to change based on the COVID-19 pandemic’s status through the school year.

As for how the district plans to keep its schools open, TCPS pointed to strict adherence to safety protocols outlined in its reopening plan — such as health screenings and building-wide face coverings and social distancing mandates — as key to ensuring in-person attendees’ safety while the coronavirus threat lingers.

Talbot County has 508 COVID-19 cases and 8 deaths as of Sept. 12, according to the Maryland Department of Health. The state has 115,533 cases and 3,693 deaths as of Sept. 12.

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