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Karen B. Salmon, Maryland’s schools superintendent, pointed to failing grades in systems that rely on remote instruction in advocating for having small groups of students on campus. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Maryland’s top education leader is pressing the state’s 24 school systems to consider bringing small groups of students back to campus despite surging coronavirus cases, citing intensive student needs and research that does not show major in-school spread of the virus.

State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon pointed to failing grades in school systems that rely on remote instruction, including those in suburban Montgomery County and Virginia’s Fairfax County, while also noting the mental health fallout for students and inequities for those most vulnerable.

“The research is not showing a consistent relationship between in-person K-through-12 schooling with appropriate safety measures and the spread of the coronavirus,” Salmon told the Maryland State Board of Education on Tuesday. “I . . . continue to encourage our school systems to bring small groups of students in for in-person instruction.”

State officials said it appears that just two of Maryland’s school systems are currently doing some form of in-person instruction.

When the school year’s second semester begins in 2021, Salmon said, it will be “critical” to also return students to hybrid models of instruction, which typically offer in-person classes for part of each week for a broader student population.

“We need to reopen our schools because the risks to our children of keeping them closed are far greater,” she said.

Her push comes as a number of school systems nationally have retreated on plans for in-person learning with coronavirus cases on the rise. But it was not quite a month and a half ago — when the daily count of new cases was lower in Maryland — that Salmon issued a “call to action” for schools to reopen for at least some students.

State board members spoke in favor of Salmon’s effort at a meeting in late October, voting to support it. At the time, 19 school systems in Maryland had offered some version of in-person instruction to at least some students.

Maryland state superintendent says students should be in school ‘right now’

Six weeks later, with cases spiking, state board members on Tuesday again spoke in support of Salmon’s plan.

Salmon had introduced the issue with a presentation by Jinlene Chan, acting deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Health.

Chan said that state guidelines about when schools should be open or closed are not “hard and fast rules” and that state officials recognize each system must respond to unique characteristics related to the layouts of buildings, student needs and other issues.

While not all students would return to in-person classes, possibilities could include a limited return that focused on some students, especially those who are struggling with virtual learning or who have special needs, she said

“Those are some of the opportunities that I think are still available,” she said.

Montgomery County school officials said Tuesday that they are moving toward bringing small groups of students back to school campuses. If a plan gets final approval from the county school board next week, some students could return as early as Jan. 12, said Gboyinde Onijala, spokeswoman for the 161,000-student school system, the state’s largest.

“We are focused and committed to bring students back as soon as possible,” she said.

Parents and teachers: Tell The Washington Post how your kids are handling online classes

The state board meeting came a day after the leader of Maryland’s second-largest school system spoke with The Washington Post about a recent decision to delay plans for returning students to in-person instruction.

Prince George’s will not bring students back Feb. 1, as it once hoped to do, said Monica Goldson, chief executive officer of Prince George’s County’s public schools.

Goldson did not specify a new target date, saying that health conditions are key. If case numbers drop, the school system could potentially survey parents in February and bring back some students in small groups a few weeks later, she said.

She noted that parents in Prince George’s — hit hard by the pandemic — are not clamoring to get their children back into school buildings.

More than two-thirds of respondents in an October survey said they would not send their children back to campus if they had the chance.

“Before this school year is out, we definitely want to provide some form of small group support and instruction for our students if we possibly can,” she said.

Prince George’s leads the state in the number of coronavirus cases — more than 44,800 — and is second only to Montgomery County in number of deaths, according to The Post’s tracker.

In neighboring Montgomery, the topic of reopening schools comes before the school board again next Tuesday. It has been a controversial topic, with many parents urging that schools be opened and criticizing the system’s approach to a return as overly strict.

New survey data show 63,352 people opting for partial in-person schooling and 63,760 selecting an all-virtual approach, Onijala said.

Both Maryland school systems have had employees test positive.

Prince George’s lists buildings that close or get sanitized after a coronavirus case. Montgomery has a dashboard showing the number of employees who have tested positive, 183, and the number currently in quarantine, 24.

The state department of health operates a dashboard of outbreak-associated cases in schools.

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