Maryland teachers unions, PTA call for virtual-only start to school this fall amid coronavirus pandemic

A coalition including the Maryland State Education Association, the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland PTA called on state officials Tuesday to start the academic year in an online-only setting as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

In a virtual news conference, speakers urged Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon to recognize the risks associated with sending children back to the classrooms this fall, particularly for faculty and staff members as well as essential personnel such as bus drivers.


Deciding on a virtual-only start to the year now would give school districts six weeks to iron out the kinks associated with remote learning, said Cheryl Bost, president of the MSEA, the statewide teachers union, citing the acute “digital divide” already revealed between children in low-income neighborhoods and their more affluent peers.

She called distance learning the responsible, safe choice in a situation in which Maryland could not afford to err.


“We don’t believe we have enough resources or enough planning in place for a hybrid model,” Bost said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “Let’s get distance learning right, so if the state has to shut down again, we can smoothly transition back to where we were this spring.”

But the group’s proposal clashes with that of those who say the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the possible risks.

Schools provide food for children with nutritional needs as well as mental and physical health services. Open schools allow parents in the workforce to go back to work, enabling the economy to recover. It’s also where students with disabilities get needed therapies and specialized instruction that their parents often cannot provide.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools start with the goal of in-person classes when weighing reopening decisions. An Anne Arundel County school district survey showed 49% of families said sending their kids back to school buildings this fall was their preferred choice.

Members of the coalition acknowledged that some children have not received adequate instruction since March, when schools transitioned to “crisis mode” as the pandemic swept into the state.

But Bost said the coalition’s proposed plan would have all school districts start the year online and then gradually transition back to school buildings when leaders and stakeholders in each jurisdiction feel comfortable.

Kids in Garrett County, for example, which has had 27 confirmed COVID-19 cases since March and no known deaths, might be able to transition back to classrooms more quickly than students in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which account for nearly 35,000 infections and hundreds of related fatalities.

This plan also would buy the state more time to acquire stockpiles of personal protective equipment for schools as well as expedited test kits and additional federal funds to ensure student and employee safety.


“I’m waiting for the press conference that says we have all the tablets and PPE ready for schools, but we have not seen the return to school a top priority,” said Bost, who’s also a 4th and 5th grade teacher in Baltimore County. “We have heard ‘budget cuts,' not an all hands on deck approach to solve this.”

The state department of education said its officials would listen to the feedback.

“We look forward to continuing an active dialogue with stakeholders as we move forward together with local system partners to deliver quality, effective and safe education for Maryland students,” the agency said in a statement.

Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said he met with Salmon this week to discuss schools reopening.

Bost said she anticipates the coalition will work with Hogan and Salmon in reaching a decision that suits everyone. If the state disagrees with the group’s proposal, she said the coalition would work to apply pressure in each district, with members of the legislature, parents and other stakeholders involved.

In a joint letter to Hogan and Salmon, the coalition said focusing now on virtual learning would allow a hybrid model to work more efficiently for the rest of the year. They would use the time between now and the first day of the new academic year to work on acquiring more hardware for students; increase internet access for kids and educators who lack it; expand professional development and online training for students and families; and continue the school meals programs.


So far, school districts have published differing draft proposals for the school year, some of which suggest starting the year completely online and others advocating for a hybrid start to the year. In some districts, families could decide whether they feel comfortable sending their kids back while others do not offer such a choice.

At the press conference, Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said some might look to virtual learning as a “cop out,” or a selfish choice that does not prioritize students. She and Bost both acknowledged that educators prefer teaching in person, and that distance learning was rolled out too fast this spring.

However, virtual education prioritizes the lives of teachers, students and educators, she said, and with coronavirus cases rising around the country, the fall semester does not seem within reach.

“It is more convenient to teach in person, however right now it is not the safest way,” said Brown, adding that Montgomery and Howard counties already decided to start the year virtually.

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Meanwhile, she said, many schools in Baltimore City still lack air conditioning as well as technology.

“We’re putting our kids in the most exposure, but somehow we can’t decide if we should start schools virtually,” she said. “I guess, once again, we feel like these kids can just handle it.”


Representatives from the Baltimore City schools system did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

Brown also said that sending children back to schools on buses would unnecessarily jeopardize drivers and other essential workers who rely on public transportation to get to work.

In a live television appearance on “Meet the Press,” Hogan previously said the state is “not going to be rushed into this” despite political pressure from the White House pushing for students to resume in-person learning this fall.

President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have championed the return of students to classrooms despite the high risk factors outlined in a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention leaked last week by The New York Times.

“We will not succumb to politics that would place Maryland educators, students, or families in harm’s way and have them participate in a potentially deadly experiment,” the coalition wrote in its letter to Hogan and Salmon. “Not only does this completely ignore the adults in schools who would undoubtedly have a higher rate of transmission and death, but it also presupposes that there is a number of deaths of students and educators that is acceptable. There is not.”