No one really thought they would return to school buildings this year, not students, not teachers, and certainly not school leaders. But the announcement Maryland’s school superintendent made Wednesday to keep schools closed for the rest of the year closed the door with finality on middle school farewells, proms and the last day waves to teachers by first graders.
What comes next for school leaders is carrying out plans they already put in place. They will make decisions on grading and graduations, and on how to catch kids up after some have missed months of work. School leaders said they now can offer teachers, parents and students guidance about what will return to normal when schools reopen — but also prepare them for ways schools may remain changed.
“I think that everyone assumed there wouldn’t be school, they just didn’t understand why it wasn’t announced,” said Jayne Lee, president of the Baltimore County PTA.
Maryland was one of the first states in the nation to announce it was closing schools in mid-March, but it was one of the last to tell students they aren’t going back this year. Only Maryland, Montana and Wyoming had yet to make a decision as of Wednesday morning.
Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, announced the decision during a Wednesday afternoon news conference with Gov. Larry Hogan.
“I am convinced this is the appropriate decision in order to continue to protect the health and safety of our students, educators, staff and all members of school communities throughout Maryland," Salmon said.
She said school systems will continue to offer online and distance learning as the state education department develops a long-term recovery plan.
Public school students were last in their classrooms on March 13, as officials have kept kids out of their buildings in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. An initial two-week closure was extended through mid-May then extended again on Wednesday to cover the rest of the year.
“I am not surprised, but of course I am disappointed that we won’t be to finish in our buildings with our staff and students around us,” said Anne Arundel County Superintendent George Arlotto. “It also allows us now to focus our efforts on the future.”
Baltimore school chief Sonja Santelises said that with the big question of whether schools will reopen out of the way, it allows school systems to formalize and finalize plans for lesser issues that have been in the works for weeks.
“Families want to know what graduation plans are,” she said.
School leaders are focused on boiling the curriculum down to the most essential elements — what do students have to know in each grade and subject — so that they’ll return to in-person instruction with as few gaps as possible.
“It does enable us to plan more specifically for a point in time when students will be returning,” said Christina Byers, the community superintendent for Baltimore County schools’ central area.
While she believes students can learn a lot through distance learning, it isn’t the same.
“We have an excellent plan but nothing replaces that human connection and that opportunity to be in a school with their school family," Byers said. "It is the nature of what we do.”
Some educators said the final decision leaves many teachers and students in limbo, without the ability to say goodbye. Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said the moment will be hard for teachers who start each September with optimism and want to see the conclusion of the year.
“As much as you are ready for the announcement, you take a breath and it is kind of sad,” she said. “It is an emotional moment.”
At some point schools will let teachers back into their classrooms to pack things up and Bost imagines them walking into a moment frozen in time, when white boards still read March 13 and school lockers and desks are filled with school supplies and work not touched for months. She said she hopes schools will think about holding a day next fall when everyone can go back to their old classrooms and say goodbye to that year.
Santelises said that while she and her staff knew they were unlikely to go back, she’d spoken with students and parents who still held out hope of a return.
“It was very real to me that people were holding onto May 15th,” she said, either with dread that they might have to decide whether to send their children into a schoolhouse if the state reopened or with the hope that they might still be able to have a graduation. "I have tried to remind myself of the very emotional human stages of grief that people are going through.”
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She added that it is up to school staff to reach out to families and keep in touch so that students can have a better shot at learning.
Joe Kane, a city school parent said the decision allows his family to move forward and figure out the next few months of no camps and no learning inside schools.
“Now you have an opportunity to get into a rhythm,” Kane said. “I think the kids are still concerned. They are still looking for guidance as to how this will play out.”
What the future holds is still unclear. School leaders said they have envisioned everything from a completely normal return to school in the fall to a much more gradual, awkward beginning.
For instance, Arlotto said students might wear face masks and have their temperatures taken when they get on buses. Schools are looking at how they might acquire masks and thermometers and what the logistics might be. And they may decide to have students come on an alternating day pattern or on partial days. Students with disabilities might have more intensive time with teachers.
“How many students can we put on a bus? How many students in a classroom keeping students six feet apart?” Arlotto said. “We are crunching the numbers now."
School system administrators said they would likely follow state guidelines for returning and for how to close the school year out, including seeking permission from the state to shorten the school year to 175 days from 182 to account for days schools were closed in March while transitioning to remote learning.