A coalition of teachers unions and parent organizations is calling for state schools to begin the coming year with distance learning.
The group, in a four-page letter to Gov. Larry Hogan and state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon and with a Tuesday news conference, is expressing concerns about the ability to properly ensure the safety of children and teachers during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We must be safe, and we must get this right,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union.
Bost said the school year should start with at-home learning for the first semester that transitions to a hybrid and in-school learning later in the year.
“Caution now means we will be able to transition to a hybrid model after the year begins and possibly a mostly in-person model later in the school year when it is safe,” Bost said.
Schools in Maryland have been closed to in-person learning since March 13. Parents and educators have given the virtual learning experience that followed mixed grades and educators acknowledge that students in poor communities in Baltimore and rural areas have not had the tools to properly access lessons.
“This reopening model will allow districts to resolve the inequities of the digital divide that were laid bare this spring,” said Bost.
Schools have not received the funding needed to make schools healthy for students to return to the classroom, she said.
“In ordinary times, parents would have no qualms about sending their babies off to school to learn,” said Tonya Sweat, vice president of advocacy for the Maryland Parent Teachers Association. “These are not ordinary times.”
Some school districts are already considering a phased-in approach.
Montgomery County Schools, the state’s largest school district, released its plan to the community that leans toward virtual learning for at least the first two to four weeks of the academic year. The system would then phase in in-person learning but parents could opt for a virtual learning environment.
“We prefer in-person teaching. We also prefer our lives over everything. We prefer our students’ lives over convenience. It is more convenient to teach in person, however it is not, right now, the safest way,” said Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.
Hogan, speaking Sunday on Meet the Press, said he expects to receive a report on reopening schools at some point this week. Salmon has said in the past that the pandemic has shown that school systems have not done enough to embrace distance learning, calling it a wave of the future.
“We’re going to come up with a plan that’s probably a hybrid that talks about how we’re going to provide the best education we can for our kids and do it in a safe way,” Hogan said Sunday.
The call to delay in-person learning comes amid intensifying debate over whether it is safe to bring children back into the classroom during the ongoing pandemic.
The American Pediatric Association issued guidance in which it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
Supporters of reopening schools point to low transmission infection rates and mortality rates among younger children.
Bost dismissed those claims as “rhetoric.”
“Not only does that completely ignore the adults in schools that undoubtedly have a higher rate of transmission and death, but it also presupposes that there are a number of deaths of students and educators that are acceptable,” said Bost. “There are not.”
The Centers for Disease Control issued its own guidance calling for sanitization efforts as well as canceling all large gatherings, daily health checks and monitoring absenteeism. Those were in addition to the standard calls for use of facial coverings, hand washing and social distancing.
President Donald Trump characterized the guidelines as too tough and expensive. He called on school systems around the country to begin in-person instruction when schools open in the fall for the academic year and said he’d consider pressuring governors to ensure that it happened, including threatening to cut federal funding.
“While we appreciate input from the CDC and from the federal government, we’re not going to be bullied or threatened by the president, and I don’t think it’s helpful for him to make those kinds of comments, ” Hogan said during an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show last week.