State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon said Wednesday that school systems across Maryland should improve online access to learning and prepare for the potential that COVID-19 effects for the school year that starts in the fall.
“We’re not sure that this is going to be something that we’re not going to revisit in the fall or in the winter,” said Salmon during a conference call with the General Assembly’s Joint COVID-19 Work Group. “So I am really focusing much of our resources on the expansion and the accountability wrapped around online learning and distance learning. That’s going to be our focus right now because it has to be.”
Salmon announced a two-week statewide closure of schools starting March 16. It was later extended four more weeks with a tentative return to class scheduled for April 24. A decision about a possible extension of that closure is expected in the next two weeks.
Students, including seniors who would normally be wrapping up their school years by May, are not expected to be held back.
“All of our students will move on to the next grade,” said Salmon. “We’ve already determined that.”
Salmon, who championed digital learning and ensuring each student had access to a computer or other digital device while she led the Talbot County School District, said the pandemic has convinced her that schools must move to online learning.
“I’m not sure we are going to be going to school in the same way moving forward and I think this period of time which we will be counting for learning and accountability, these (missed) days will count,” she said.
Most school systems do a good job with online learning, she said.
“We have to ramp this up because this is the 21st century,” said Salmon, adding that school systems who are behind will need to prioritize their efforts.
Since the closures, school systems have been ramping up distance learning efforts including online offerings. Maryland Public Television and cable systems in many jurisdictions are also offering instructional courses. Additionally, state education officials are vetting distance learning programs offered in individual counties to make sure they meet with state standards.
Those efforts are not enough as many students in poor urban and rural areas lack access to computers or high-speed internet that would make distance learning possible.
“You and I know and everyone else on this call knows there is a a digital divide in this country and that divide is once again, I think, impacting our students who are most at risk in the state and those are students who live in communities of poverty, communities where there is not internet or even computers at home,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Salmon agreed but said many rural school systems are taking innovative approaches, including adding Wi-Fi to school buses so that cars can park around them and give students online access while social distancing.
“The other thing that school systems have been doing is where they did not have a one-to-one device they are purchasing additional devices for their students and then handing them out with the food deliveries,” said Salmon.
The state will also consider easing requirements on students who are seniors, including service hours and some testing requirements for a “small number” of students around the state.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, asked Salmon to consider extending school calendars to year-round classes.
“After June 15, a big question remains and that is how do we make up a lost quarter of learning or possibility of a semester of learning given the learning loss that happens over the summer? When you add on the extra three months, that could be four or five months of learning loss. We actually could have an actual half year of true learning lost,” said Pinsky.