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Residents flock to Southern Maryland state parks during pandemic

After the COVID-19 pandemic caused restrictions on certain activities in Maryland, many residents turned to state parks for time outdoors with friends and family, including Nancy Briggs, a 76-year-old resident of Asbury Senior Living Community in Solomons.

Briggs said this week that her visits to Jefferson Patterson State Park have given her the opportunity to get out of her apartment and see her family throughout the pandemic.

When lockdowns first began earlier this year, she said no visitors were allowed in the senior community. While Briggs’ family lived in Silver Spring, they struggled to spend time together outside of virtual Zoom calls.

“In early summer we decided we wanted to meet up somewhere we could social distance,” she said. “And outside is always safer.”

Briggs, along with her daughter and granddaughter, began visiting Jefferson Patterson State Park for lunches and walks, always wearing masks, she said.

She mentioned there are usually a number of people at the park but it never “felt crowded” and there is enough space for groups of people to stay away from each other.

Briggs isn’t alone in her desire for fresh air and company.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced last week the Maryland Park Service is reporting a total of 17.1 million visitors to date in 2020, already surpassing the previous record of 14.9 million visitors in 2019, with three months still remaining in the year. During peak season in July, state parks attracted 3.4 million visitors, compared to 2.5 million during the same time period last year.

Parks throughout the state have seen a significant uptick in attendance across the board, which continues a trend of recent years but has accelerated dramatically in 2020. Various parks within the system have had to close their gates temporarily due to maximum capacity a record 260 times so far in 2020, well above the 10-year annual average of 79 closures per year, and surpassing the previous record of 121.

Increases have been seen in both daytime use and overnight camping.

“As our state continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic, we have consistently reminded the people of Maryland that outside activity is much safer than inside activity,” Hogan said in a prepared statement. “We are so pleased to see that Marylanders have heeded that advice by visiting our state parks in record numbers this year to exercise safely, get some fresh air, and spend time with family.”

From the beginning of the pandemic, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Park Service developed detailed response plans and DNR will continue to adapt its plans as the state enters new phases of the Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery and new health advisories are issued.

Patrick Bright, southeastern region manager for the Maryland Park Service, told Southern Maryland News last week, in addition to providing signage with information on the latest guidelines at places of contact, the parks have been closing restrooms for more frequent cleanings. Playground equipment was off-limits for a while earlier in the pandemic, he said, adding the public has been very accepting of new requirements.

The ranger mentioned the parks were able to procure personal protective equipment for employees and a special type of cleansing solution which is effective against COVID-19.

“It was miraculous but we got it,” he said.

Unfortunately, many parks have had to deal with the high volume of visitors with less staff, as challenges arose in hiring and maintaining personnel through the pandemic, he said.

In Southern Maryland there are 10 state parks. Some have seen increases, while others saw decreases in visitors compared to last year, but Bright pointed out attendance numbers remained high, despite campgrounds and beaches at the parks opening a month later than usual.

Calvert Cliffs State Park in Calvert County saw 130,696 visitors last year, according to a document provided by DNR, but this year that number has more than doubled already.

“People are having more family time and want to explore the outdoors while there are restrictions on other leisure activities,” Bright said.

Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary’s County often has to close for capacity reasons for hours at a time, especially on weekends, but lately “Calvert Cliffs closes constantly” as well, he said, adding they had to close it this past weekend due to the park reaching its capacity.

The park occasionally closed after reaching capacity in the past but “nothing like this,” he said. In April, there was an issue with people parking on the side of the road and sneaking into the park after it had been closed, but Bright said the problem was “nipped in the bud” after working with the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office and other officials.

The parking lot at St. Mary’s River State Park in St. Mary’s County is closed for renovations but the park is still open to visitors. Bright pointed out while people can’t park in the main lot, there are outlying parking areas available. He said renovations on the lot are estimated to be complete in the next month.

There were no park closures in Charles County, partly due to the fact one of their three state parks, Smallwood, is popular for bass fishing, which wasn’t done as much this year due to coronavirus related travel restrictions, Bright said.

Back at Jefferson Patterson State Park, Briggs’ daughter recently acquired a family dog, who accompanied the group last Friday during their park visit.

Being unable to see friends and family because of restrictions put in place because of COVID-19 revealed how important human interaction is, Briggs noted, expressing how grateful she is to “get away from her regular surroundings” and enjoy the outdoors.

Twitter: @MadisonSoMdNews

'It's really been a blessing to do this'

As executive director, Bonnie Elward did so much at Southern Maryland Community Resources that it’s no wonder her position was filled by two people after she stepped down on Sept. 30.

“That speaks volumes to what Bonnie was able to do on her own,” said SMCR vice chair Kristin Kauffman Beaver.

Elward, who founded the organization in July 2013, said she stepped down to pursue entrepreneurial pursuits.

“I’m overwhelmed and I’m very proud of the impact that was made,” said Elward, who lives in California. “Of course there were more things I wanted to do, but I think considering we started with nothing we did OK.”

Elward was celebrated by the organization in a farewell luncheon held at Kingfisher’s Restaurant in Solomons where she was presented with flowers and a plaque.

“My parting is a time-out and a reset to see what is essential for me in the future to be of further service to the community,” Elward said in a news release. “It’s been a wonderful seven years and I’m grateful for the opportunity. It’s really been a blessing to do this. SMCR will continue to serve our members and the community under new organization in these new and challenging times.”

“The word gratitude cannot possibly express the depth and breadth of what the board of directors feels toward Bonnie Elward,” stated a message from the board of directors. “Bonnie’s dedication to the members of SMCR has been unwavering for seven years. Her trust in providence and her own personal mission has brought SMCR to its current stature as a pillar in the community.”

Elward, a former hospice nurse, will give presentations to those affected by the coronavirus through her new company, H.H. Joy Enterprises LLC. The H’s stand for hope and healing.

“With COVID-19 we have absolutely no idea about how, when or where this is all going to end,” said Elward, who will offer agencies and their workers support systems and offer strategies with colleague Patty Stein, the director of Pure Play Every Day. “It’s a huge time of grief, loss and mourning for everybody.”

Elward’s position will be replaced by Sandy Norris, who is the community outreach coordinator, and program director Therese Thiedeman.

“[Elward] spoke with such love in her heart when she said, ‘Everyone is a member here. Speaking of someone as a member means they are included. They are part of something that makes them feel special. They are members of our SMCR family,” said Norris, who started volunteering with SMCR in 2017. “With that I knew I had come to a place that would forever feed my soul. All had differences in what their interests were but as time went by we understood their wants and created our events around their interests.”

“Currently, we’re running evening virtual programs all on Zoom and we welcome everyone to join us,” Thiedeman said. “We want our programs to be all-inclusive [to] community members with and without developmental disabilities.”

Elward was running a special needs ministry at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Leonardtown when the Potomac Community Resources and the Archdiocese of Washington wanted to begin the ministry in Southern Maryland; Elward was asked to be its executive director.

“There were a few part time [workers], but basically I was it,” Elward said of the new SMCR, which was funded through sponsorships by Catholic charities, the archdiocese and Potomac Community Resources. “They say God protects fools and angels, and I fall somewhere in the middle.”

Elward conceded the first couple years were difficult.

“I think people were concerned we were going into their territory or take their funding,” she said, “and I kept saying, ‘No.’ Collaboration to me is what we bring to the table, not what am I going to take away.”

Elward insisted that the focus of the SMCR is to be inclusion.

“I’ve always tried to look at SMCR as not only social and recreational, but being a bridge for people in the community to understand that people with developmental differences have the basic same needs as you and I do,” she said. “They just can’t express it as profound as others, but the needs are there.”

SMCR also developed an Art to Heart program at St. Mary’s Ryken High School, which was named ‘Most Innovative Program’ by the St. Mary’s County Commission for persons with disabilities.

In addition, SMCR also holds an exercise program and a cooking class, as well as movie, bowling and game nights.

Elward said she experienced a range of emotions on Sept. 30, her first day post-SMCR.

“Of course there’s that anticipatory grief so there’s that in the back of your mind,” she said. “I felt very grateful that I had these seven years of being able to work with the community and that I had grown both personally and professionally in that time. The gift for me was that in this process I’m stepping down but I’m not retiring because I feel that God’s given me a lot of gifts and skills that he still wants me to use.”

Twitter: @MichaelSoMdNews

Suspect remains at large following fatal shooting of convenience store clerk

A total of $27,500 is being offered for information which leads to the arrest or indictment of a suspect who allegedly robbed a Waldorf 7-Eleven store before shooting and killing the store’s clerk.

The FBI, Charles Crime Solvers and 7-Eleven have combined reward money for information which leads to the arrest of the suspect who killed Lynn Marie Maher, 49, of White Plains, who was shot and killed during an armed robbery on Oct. 1, according to a release from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office.

A preliminary investigation by the sheriff’s office determined a lone man wearing a white face mask entered the Middletown Road store at 12:50 a.m. on Oct. 1, and demanded money, shooting Maher after obtaining the cash.

The sheriff’s office will not be releasing surveillance footage from the scene “at this time,” due to “investigative reasons,” according to sheriff’s office spokesperson Diane Richardson.

“We’ve had tremendous help from our community” which has helped with the case since the incident, Richardson said on Wednesday, although no arrests had been made as of that day. “We are pursuing some strong leads.”

Richardson said the community will be informed if progress is made on the case.

In a Facebook post, her husband, Travis Maher, said his wife “loved life, teaching Tae Kwon Do, and being there for her family and friends.”

He said witnesses told police she had given the alleged robber everything she could, and “had nothing else to give in this person’s eyes other than her valued and loved life.”

Travis Maher did not answer calls for comment prior to press time.

“Our hearts are with the victim’s family,” a spokesperson for 7-Eleven’s corporate division said. “We have been working with the local franchisee to gather information and provide local law enforcement with any information helpful to their investigation.”

Those with information about the case are asked to contact detectives at 301-609-6474.

Twitter: @DanSoMdNews

Calvert school board candidates Balinski and Leo square off

Two Calvert County school board candidates may have enjoyed a forum moderated by Malcolm Funn last week, but the school superintendent may not have.

District 1 incumbent Dawn Balinski and challenger Chad Leo participated in a virtual forum sponsored by the Calvert League of Women Voters on Oct. 6.

Leo, a recent graduate of Patuxent High School, is taking on Balinski, who has served eight years on the board of education. She was elected in 2010 and then lost to Bill Phalen in 2014, before being re-elected in 2016.

“I’ve gone through the fire,” Balinski said, calling the loss to the popular Phalen, who died Sept. 7, “one of the hardest experiences you can go through.”

Balinski noted that she had two children go through Calvert schools, while Leo said he has two siblings who are currently attending and his parents are both educators: his mother in Calvert and his father in St. Mary’s County.

Balinski said the board can only do three things: hire/fire the superintendent, set policy and set the budget.

“It’s an eye-opener when you first get on the board because you think you must have more say than one does,” she said.

Superintendent targeted

Leo targeted Superintendent Daniel D. Curry in some of his remarks, noting that he would hold him accountable. “I don’t think the board has done that to the best of their ability,” Leo said. He criticized Balinski for twice approving Curry’s contract, which he said currently pays $205,000 a year and is $20,000 more than the salary for St. Mary’s public schools’ Superintendent Scott Smith. However, according to contracts posted on the school systems’ websites, Smith actually makes $20,000 more than Curry.

“He’s responsible for implementing the policies of the board of education,” Leo said of Curry. “I don’t think Dr. Curry has done an adequate job of doing that.”

Balinski said that Calvert “is one of the thinnest staffed” school districts as far as administrators go. In addition, “Dr. Curry has one of the leanest benefit packages,” she said.

Leo said the school board “had a great opportunity to promote a leader from within,” naming former interim superintendent Nancy Highsmith. Instead, a few members of the board, including Balinski, decided to recruit someone from Delaware instead of promoting a former teacher from the county, Leo said.

In response, Balinski said Highsmith “was an excellent interim superintendent.” However, Balinski noted that Highsmith “had not met all of the qualifications. She didn’t meet of all of the state requirements.”

“Curry has improved communication with the stakeholders, a lot more than existed in the past,” Balinski said.

Leo pledged to conduct two town halls each year, if elected, and said the school district has declined in rankings over the past couple of years.

Balinski said the starting teacher salary was just raised to $50,500 and noted that “steps” in the salary schedule that hadn’t been implemented during the recession a decade ago have been restored.

“It’s not just pay, it’s about how you feel,” Leo said. “Recent comments by board members and Dr. Curry have caused teachers to feel unappreciated, and that’s why they’re leaving.” Leo said teachers are distraught by lack of resources and respect.

Other issues addressed

As far as security goes, Balinski said the district is “almost finished all hardening of our schools,” citing vestibules with restricted entry and adding cameras and school resource officers.

Leo said the district needs a “two-pronged strategy” for protecting students and staff. This includes using restorative justice and adding mental health resources, which he said research shows reduces school violence by more than 40%. Leo said that Calvert Technology Academy hasn’t had a school resource officer for many years.

“I’m proud of our school system,” Balinski said, noting it has hired a supervisor of equity and student improvement [Sandy Walker] to teach how to recognize one’s implicit bias. “We’re having a courageous conversation throughout the school system,” Balinski said. This was in response to a question about how to develop procedures to implement the district’s anti-racism policy.

“We need to do more than just a book club,” Leo said. “We need outreach to LGBTQ, racial minorities and impoverished students to overcome barriers.”

In regard to special education program improvements, Leo noted that he had an individualized education program, or IEP, throughout his school years. “We’ve been underfunding, understaffing and under-resourcing,” he said. “Students don’t have a voice [in their education]. They should.”

Balinski said the district budgeted for “eight or nine” school psychologists, but was only able to hire four. As a result, the district was forced to contract for services, including bringing in social workers.

“I would not flip-flop my vote in the middle of a meeting,” Leo said, adding that he wouldn’t vote for a plan unless he had more than an hour to review it, referring to Balinski voting for a hybrid plan on Sept. 24 to bring some students back to school buildings on Oct. 26. That vote resulted in a tie, 2-2-1.

Leo noted that he was endorsed by new school board member Patrick Nutter and others.

Balinski said she’s helped the district through several challenges, citing the Great Recession that began in 2008, the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and, currently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

The League of Women Voters did not host a forum for the District 2 school board race between Antoine White and Dawn Keen after Keen suspended her campaign in late July amidst a social media controversy. White and Keen are vying to replace Tracy H. McGuire, who is term-limited.

Incumbent Inez N. Claggett is unopposed in District 3 after being appointed to her current position when former board member Kelly D. McConkey was elected as a county commissioner. Nutter was recently appointed to fill the at-large seat vacated when Bill Phalen died. Pamela L. Cousins holds the other at-large seat.

Two St. Mary’s candidates bow out of forum

A virtual Oct. 13 forum that had been scheduled for St. Mary’s school board candidates Jim Davis and Heather Earhart was canceled the morning of the event. District 2 incumbent Davis said he canceled because of an “urgent family matter.”

Earhart said it was unfortunate that the forum was canceled, but wished Davis’ family the best. Earhart announced in January that she was running for the position. On Tuesday, she said getting to the national standard of 15 students for one teacher is a worthwhile goal for St. Mary’s.

Cathy Allen faces a challenge this year from DeForest Rathbone, whom she had previously defeated in a 2016 primary election for the St. Mary’s school board’s at-large seat.

A League of Women Voters candidate forum was not scheduled for the Allen-Rathbone race because Rathbone previously declined to participate in the virtual forum. A former nurse, Allen said she respected the LWV’s decision to socially distance in light of COVID-19.

District 4 incumbent Mary Washington is running unopposed in the Nov. 3 general election.

Twitter: @CalebSoMdNews