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State school board delays decision about setting requirements for live online instruction in Maryland schools

The state school board on Tuesday decided to delay a vote on whether to require school districts to offer students a minimum of 3½ hours of live online instruction each day while classes remain remote because of coronavirus.

State school board chairman Clarence Crawford said the board will discuss the issue at a special board meeting on Sept. 1.

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Maryland schools superintendent Karen Salmon made the proposal to require a minimum number of hours of instruction at a board meeting on Monday. “I want to make sure that all students across the state have the same opportunity for learning,” Salmon said at the time. “I think this is crucial.”

But board members had a number of questions about whether the instruction requirement would include the time teachers spend with a small group of students from one class, and tutoring sessions that might be provided after school and by someone who isn’t a student’s classroom teacher.

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A school board member also suggested pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students should not be required to sit in front of a computer screen for that long each day.

Salmon wanted a minimum requirement because she said she is concerned that every student in the state has equal access to an education. Some school systems plan to offer as little as 90 minutes of live instruction a day.

Teachers conduct live instruction by having students join them on a video call. Students will be able to see their teachers and their classmates while the class is in session. In some cases, teachers will teach from their classrooms.

Crawford said at the meeting Tuesday morning he wanted to put more thought into the decision.

“This is a very important item,” Crawford said. “We want to take the time to have a discussion.”

Crawford said he knows the decision is being made just before school starts, but he said he believes that there may have to be adjustments during this pandemic. Most school systems are scheduled to begin on September 8.

“When you find that there is an issue then you have to stop,” he said. The state should “provide a reasonable way forward for school systems to make adjustments and in a way that benefits the children.”

Cheryl Bost, president of the union representing 75,000 teachers in the state, cautioned about making a decision that would have to be implemented quickly. She said superintendents and other education advocates asked state leaders in meetings this summer not to change the rules midstream.

Teachers have already created lesson plans based on districts’ proposed schedules for live instruction, arranged for child care for their own children, and are set to go. The union hasn’t taken a stance on how many hours of live instruction should be mandated, although they believe there should be at least some live instruction each day and that it should vary depending on the age of the child.

If a change is made, Bost said, she would ask the board to give teachers time to adjust their lesson plans.

Carroll County is the only system in the Baltimore region that is planning less than three and a half hours of live instruction. Elementary students have 75 minutes of live instruction with a teacher for math and English each day, and an additional two hours for teachers to connect live with students who need additional help in small or large groups. Jason Anderson, chief of academics, equity and accountability, said that would leave the district only 15 minutes short of the proposed minimum time requirement Salmon is proposing.

“We have a large contingent of our elementary students who are going into day care,” he said, and those students may not be able to sign on for live classes. So, teachers will be recording lessons and students will watch them when they get home. School leaders, he said, felt that students under 10 years old would have difficulty sitting still longer than the time they had proposed for classes.

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But school systems have never tried this before and Anderson said no one knows how it will go. “Everyone is trying to determine what is the right amount,” he said.

All school systems in the state are beginning the school year completely online, state education officials said. But 14 of Maryland’s 24 systems intend to bring at least some small groups of students back into schools within the first semester, some as early as mid-September.

The other 10 school systems intend to continue entirely online through the end of the first semester in late January. Those systems include many in the Baltimore region, such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties.

Baltimore City has said it intends to start bringing in small groups of high-risk students, including special education students, as early as September.

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