Leaders of three Maryland public school systems Thursday called on the Hogan administration to establish statewide standards that educators can follow as they attempt to restart in-classroom teaching.
Most school districts around the state are leaning toward starting the coming academic year outside the classroom. Three superintendents of schools systems around Maryland said state health officials and the state Department of Education need to develop a uniform set of standards that all jurisdictions can use to help determine if they are ready to reopen classrooms to students and faculty.
“We’re educators, we’re not heath experts,” said Talbot County Public Schools Superintendent Kelly Griffith. “So we really need our health experts to guide us in making these decisions in not only opening and closing but the nuances of opening and closing and the transitions between phases.”
School systems have until Aug. 14 to develop and submit a plan to the state board for approval. Many of the state’s districts — particularly the larger ones — already have indicated they planned on starting the fall semester with remote learning.
Griffith said her system’s plan would start with virtual learning with a goal of ultimately phasing into in-class instruction. The plan includes a rough timeline that she said was provided to show what the school year could look like while acknowledging that it could be subject to changes and delays.
Griffith and other school leaders Thursday said a state standard would set guidelines that all school systems must observe in order to open. And while that sounds contradictory to local control, school superintendents who spoke to Senate President Bill Ferguson and Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said jurisdictions with almost no cases would have confidence in reopening more rapidly.
“We actually do have and have seen health metrics that can serve this purpose,” said Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises. “If those metrics or others were consistent across the state then it would make the communication to families and to the public much easier as well. Then we wouldn’t have people picking their favorite indicator for decisions about school and saying we’re back in some closet somewhere making the decision. The ability for that information to be public, transparent and consistent I think actually builds confidence for any reopening or any stage of reopening that any district then embarks on.”
In June, Maryland Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon introduced a recovery plan meant to guide local school systems as they move into the coming academic calendar following a school year when they were thrown into virtual learning for the last four months.
“I think it’s important that the state provide metrics and guidance,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. “It is stunning that this is an area that they’ve chose to be quiet about.”
Elrich said the state guidelines should also cover private schools. Elrich’s health officer ordered private schools to remain closed, an order that was challenged in court and later overridden by an executive order issued by Gov. Larry Hogan.
Salmon’s plan establishes broad guidelines with the goal of eventually moving all students back into the classroom.
In many ways, however, Salmon’s document is much like Hogan’s guidelines for easing restrictions across the state, stressing local flexibility rather than a one-size-fits-all standard.
Schools must follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control as well as comply with state health orders. Schools must also be mindful of equity issues facing children in low-income families who lack technology and high-speed internet access.
The plan, however, does not include health metrics that could help school systems understand when they are ready to move from remote learning to a mix of in-class and virtual classes to complete return of students. It also doesn’t guide them on what needs to happen when students or faculty test positive for the virus.
Salmon, speaking in June, called the reopening of schools “a deeply personal issue.” Indeed, the issue of reopening schools is as politically charged as most other issues related to the pandemic. Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith called on the public to broaden its view.
The superintendent said he receives messages and emails from parents who won’t send their children to school before a vaccine is developed. Others send angrier messages laced with foul language calling him “a coward” for not ordering the return to full in-classroom instruction.
“I think all of us, our families, our staff members, ourselves, we have to remember that we have to come up with a good collective response to these situations. We have to be quick to adjust and then we just have to go forward. Otherwise, we just should — and I’ll say this even though it sounds wild — disband public education because what if there’s not a vaccine in six months or nine months or 12 months? Are we really going to stay out of schools for multiple years? So, I think a statewide strategy will help and I think this idea of a binary ‘I’ll never go’ or ‘I want to go tomorrow’ is not helpful.”