Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday said local governments should be working to get children back to in-person learning “as soon as possible,” but he stressed that a return to school buildings should not come at the expense of students and staff’s health.
“I know that people are anxious to get these final decisions, but it’s absolutely critical that rather than rushing, that we get this right for our communities, our teachers, and especially for each and every one of our children here in Maryland,” he said.
Meanwhile, other school systems are still weighing their options, including online-only instruction and a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning.
In May, the Maryland State Department of Education released a long-term education recovery plan, which outlined how schools can recover lost instructional time, how they can safely welcome back students and staff to school buildings, and other guidance.
Under the state’s plan, all school systems must submit their own education recovery plans by Aug. 14 for the State Board of Education to review.
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said today that virtual learning cannot fully replace the academic, social, emotional and nutritional support that students receive in school buildings.
Salmon also said getting students back to in-person instruction should be “the driving goal and the basis for all of our decisions.”
But she added that the safety and health of students and staff “must always be the first priority.”
The Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), a union representing teachers, administrators and other education professionals, urged school systems to opt for virtual learning for at least the first semester of the upcoming school year.
“Virtual learning is not a perfect solution, but it’s the safest and focusing on just one mode of education enables educators to direct their total attention to making it more rigorous and equitable,” MSEA President Cheryl Bost said in a statement. “We must do all we can to get the virus under control so that we can safely return to in-person learning—which we know is most beneficial to our students over the long-term.”
Bost, who is also a Baltimore County elementary school teacher, said that school systems’ ability to reopen depends on funding from federal, state, and local levels “that we have not seen to date.”
“Educators are committed to doing all that we can to make virtual learning as successful as possible, and eagerly await the day when public health conditions allow us to return to our schools and classrooms with our students for the in-person learning that we know is better for children,” she said.
Maryland public school buildings have been closed since March 16, when Gov. Larry Hogan took his first major actions in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
School closures were a “public health imperative” during that early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Salmon said on Wednesday.
The state is now “firmly in recovery,” Salmon said, and local school systems will have the flexibility to determine how they will approach the upcoming school year, including when to reopen school buildings and which groups of students and staff will be allowed to reenter.
“Depending on conditions in their locality, school systems may be more restrictive than the requirements outlined in the state recovery plan,” she said, although they may not be less restrictive than the state’s plan.
School systems must follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for schools, highlighting the importance of hand washing, physical distancing and wearing cloth face coverings for all staff and students.
School systems must also adhere to the Maryland Department of Health’s protocols for addressing an outbreak, which is defined as at least one laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19.
Under those protocols, school systems must notify the school community of any positive tests and work with the local health department for contact tracing.
The school systems must also meet several benchmarks, such as incorporating equity into the local education recovery plan, identifying learning gaps, ensuring transportation for all students, and following guidance from state agencies and the CDC on cleaning and sanitation.
When it comes to sports, school systems must follow the Maryland Public Secondary Sports Athletic Association’s guidance for interscholastic athletics and activities.
Maryland has committed a total of $255 million for educational purposes with funding through federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. That includes $100 million for digital devices; $100 million for tutoring and other programs to address learning loss; $10 million for broadband services in rural communities in Western Maryland, Southern Maryland, and along the Eastern Shore; and $45 million from the state’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.
With that money, as well as professional development for teachers over the summer on how to teach virtually, Salmon said schools in Maryland will be better positioned to overcome the pandemic’s educational challenges this upcoming school year than they were at the end of last school year.
“Learning will be different than it was this spring,” she said. “In any place it’s virtual, it will be more robust. It will be more synchronous, meaning all the time with a teacher as opposed to not all the time with a teacher. And it will look much different than it did before.”