Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Open Letter and Petition to  Governor Hogan, Governor of the State of Maryland and Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland Acting Deputy Secretary of Health

We are a group of health care workers, scientists, public health experts, and other professionals who are concerned about the prolonged disruption of schooling for children in Maryland public schools. As professionals, we have delivered care and services in our emergency rooms, outpatient clinics, patients’ homes, labs, and senior and child care centers, among many others. We have continued to be part of the critical social infrastructure that supports our communities. It is time for schools to do the same.  

It has been a year since Governor Hogan mandated a closure of schools in Maryland. During this time, many private schools have been opened for in-person instruction 5 days a week, while public schools have been completely closed or opened minimally. Districts with funding per pupil well above the national public and private school average, like Montgomery County and Baltimore County Public Schools, have currently not brought the majority of their students back to the school building, and when the students return, they will be exposed to a hybrid model with only 2 days a week of in-person instruction. This is in spite of Governor Hogan’s appeal to open all schools by March 1, 2021. As a state, we have ranked in the bottom of in-person instruction for the entire duration of the pandemic.

National and international data have shown that schools have lower COVID-19 transmission rates than the community, even when community rates are high; and that when mitigation strategies are followed, the rates of in-school transmission are very low. These studies were conducted before vaccination was widespread. There is no question that schools are safe now and this debate is over. 

For months, we have witnessed the stress and isolation that children have been exposed to during the school closures, which has greatly contributed to a national mental health crisis in youth. Mortality data have shown the rates of suicide among school age children are 10 times greater than the rates of death from COVID-19. Additionally, depression, anxiety, substance use, and eating disorders are on the rise. The tradeoffs of schools’ closures have been ignored. These tradeoffs could have long term consequences considering the effects of the loss of months of education many children have experienced, especially those in low-income households and with special education needs, many of whom have completely disengaged from their schools for months. A recent CDC study showed that those children receiving virtual or combined instruction (and their parents) presented significant worsening of their physical, mental, and emotional health during the pandemic when compared to those who received in person instruction. This research confirms what we have seen for many months: virtual and hybrid instruction are contributing to a health crisis in children.

It’s time to put an end on this neglect. The hybrid models that are now being implemented and that could have been an acceptable option before the projected second surge of the winter, are now unnecessary. They are also disruptive to working families and unpopular among teachers. Like Governor Hogan has said, everyone who wants a vaccine will now have the option to get one within a month. This highly effective vaccine protects from death, severe disease, and hospitalizations, and reduces transmission of the virus. This, along with simple mitigation strategies (masking, the new CDC’s 3-feet distance rule, and ventilation, which can be easily achieved opening windows when other ventilation systems are not available, or teaching outdoors) is enough to keep children, their families, and teachers safe. 

We are asking for an OPTION to return to in-person school 5 days a week after spring break and through the end of the school year for ALL children in Maryland public schools, and a continued undisrupted model of teaching that will offer 5-days a week of in-person instruction in the fall. 

While we appreciate the letter that Dr. Jinlene and Dr. Salmon wrote encouraging schools to use the 3-feet rule, we need our communities to understand that we need to take swift steps to make the quick return to school buildings happen. We need all local Maryland departments of health to give clear guidance to our school districts, and communicate that the threat to the health of children in Maryland due to continued virtual and hybrid learning is too important to be ignored. This is a health and social emergency and as such, we cannot afford any more delays.

More than 40 signers are from Potomac, Bethesda or Rockville

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