Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday gave the green-light for county school systems to safely bring students back to the classroom. 

He said the decision was backed by a steep decline in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that has made Maryland’s recovery efforts a standout among other states.

“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 at his 4 p.m. press conference on Thursday. “There is broad and overwhelming agreement among public health leaders, education experts, and parents that finding a way to begin safely returning children to classrooms must be a top priority.”

He said the rise in infection rates for those under 35 that peaked in July had fallen to under 4 percent. The positivity rate for those 35 and over had fallen below 3 percent. 

Kent Health Officer William Webb told the Kent Commissioners on Tuesday that Hogan’s July 31st order requiring face coverings in public is credited with bringing down the rates of infections and hospitalizations and closing the gap between the two age groups.

Hogan noted that 17 of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions have positivity rates that have fallen below 3.5 percent — and all of Maryland’s jurisdictions are below the 5 percent threshold set by the CDC and the World Health Organization to contain the spread of the virus.

There are 16 counties that submitted reopening plans by the Aug. 14 deadline that included bringing students back to the classroom in some form, but eight counties have made no such plans to bring students back before the end of the calendar year.

Hogan said “it was not acceptable and not in line with our health metrics or with state policy.”

He said those eight counties should develop hybrid plans that include some in-person instruction. 

While it is ultimately up to the local school boards to decide when students return to the classroom, the decisions should be based on the metrics established by education and health officials for returning to the classroom, Hogan said.

“So let me be clear, the State Department of Education and the Maryland Department of Health believe that all county school systems are able to begin safely reopening,” Hogan said.

Kent County is one of the 16 counties that submitted plans to incrementally bring middle and elementary students back before the end of the calendar year, but the high school was to go all virtual until Jan. 28.

In an interview Friday, KCPS Superintendent Dr. Karen Couch said there are plans to bring the middle and elementary schools fully hybrid by the end of the second quarter, but returning high school students to the classroom before Jan. 28 would be a matter for the board to consider in future scheduled meetings.

“It will be a standard agenda item that will be discussed at each board meeting,” she said. “We will review the metrics and review our situation within the county and make decisions moving forward.”

“There’s nothing engraved in stone that can’t be changed,” she said.

With Kent’s COVID-19 rates even lower than the state average, Kent Commissioner Ron Fithan said Kent was in the best position to start resuming some classroom instruction.

“We had our health officer tell us that our numbers are even better than the state’s,” Fithian said in an interview on Friday. He suggested that the school board should meet before the scheduled Sept. 14 meeting to discuss any revisions to the current plans.

“Gov. Hogan has done an exemplary job of managing this crisis based on sound science from the smartest advisors around him,” he continued. “He closed the schools accordingly in March when the science said so, and we should continue to follow the science when the Governor says it’s safe to start bringing students back to the classroom in this calendar year.”

Fithian said establishing a plan sooner rather than later would help “Kent’s households better prepare for the start of the school year.”

Couch said there is no plan for the school board to meet before the scheduled Sept. 14 meeting.