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GOP lawmakers propose bills to spur return to in-class instruction

Maryland lawmakers will be considering how to end the digital divide as well as other problems in public education exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. (Depositphotos)

Maryland GOP lawmakers have drafted a package of bills designed to pressure public schools to reopen to in-person instruction. (Depositphotos)

Maryland families could use state per-pupil funding to help pay for private school classes under a proposal from one Republican lawmaker, part of a package of bills designed to pressure public schools to reopen to in-person instruction.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Lauren Arikan, seeks to tie state funding to individual students in a way that would follow them should they enroll in a private school.

“We’ve gotten so many calls from parents whose children have been home languishing under the virtual model,” said Arikan, R-Baltimore and Harford counties.

“What’s happened in Maryland has really been a dereliction of duty,” she said. “We’ve taken our most vulnerable students and asked them to bear the brunt of this pandemic without any cause. It’s time to get our teachers and students back together in the classroom where they should be.”

Full details of the proposal and other bills in the legislative package were not immediately available nor was a copy of the bill, which is expected to be filed with the House of Delegates by Friday.

Parents of children in school districts that do not reopen to in-person instruction in the fall would be eligible to use the state portion of the per-pupil funding to help pay for private schools, a statewide average of about $7,000 per child.

“It’s not going to cover a very expensive school, but it could cover a smaller private school, maybe,” said Arikan.

It is not clear if existing private schools would have the capacity to absorb an influx of students.

“It’s really hard to know how families will chose this option,” said Arian. “I would say that it’s going to be first come, first served. The parents that chose this option the quickest will probably be the ones who get the spots and we may see new private schools start opening up. As soon as I mentioned this in some of the parent groups, parents all of a sudden said, ‘I’m going to start a private school because I’m tired of my child crying over their computer every day.’ We may see that there are many, many options.”

Arikan’s bill is part of three-bill package meant to address education issues arising from the pandemic.

Included in that package is a proposal by newly sworn-in Del. Brenda Thiam, R-Washington, that would provide a $250 per-child tax credit to defray costs of educating children at home.

Thiam cited a National Retail Federation estimate that parents spend nearly $800 on kindergarten through 12th grade home education, not including the cost of additional energy usage and food costs.

“Remote learning has not only taken its toll in the academic well-being of our children, it has also impacted families in a multitude of ways,” said Thiam, who holds a doctorate in special education. “Parents have had to reorganize their households and absorb expenses to accommodate their children learning at home.”

A third bill, sponsored by Del. Mike Griffith, R-Cecil and Harford, would require school systems to provide in-person special education, speech and language services, counseling and behavioral health, physical and occupational therapy, and nutritional services for at-risk children.

“As the father of a child with autism, these bills are very personal to me,” said Griffith. “I’ve seen my son regress. I’ve seen the emotional, physical, and  mental consequences that school closures have had on at-risk students. It is unacceptable and must never be allowed to happen again.”

A spokeswoman for the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, declined to comment before seeing the legislation.

The Republican legislative package is the latest effort to get school systems around the state to return to the classroom after nearly a year of virtual and hybrid learning during the pandemic.

“The excuses must stop,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties and House Minority Whip.

A week ago, Gov. Larry Hogan called on school systems around the state to return students to the classroom by March 1. The two-term Republican said school systems around the country have been able to continue in-person instruction safely with no community spread or outbreaks and called the science “settled.”

The governor, health officials and state Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon said teachers could return to in-person classes even if they have not received a vaccination.

Hogan hinted at possible repercussions school systems did not move toward reopening classrooms.

“We don’t want to have to take such actions here in Maryland, but if a school system does not immediately begin a good-faith effort to return to the classrooms, we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal,” said Hogan last week.

On Tuesday, Senate President Bill Ferguson, called on senators to be cautious about engaging in a war of words over returning children to in-class learning

“This is a really emotional moment in time. A lot of people are very scared. People are looking for guidance and stability. In my mind it seems very clear that the sooner we can get kids back the better, but also we have to do it safely. Also, we have to be very thoughtful as we approach this,” said Ferguson. “I would just urge, as we think about our public statements as public official, to really be thoughtful about the stakes and what’s at hand.

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