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Maryland schools superintendent stresses ‘local flexibility’ for fall reopening, doesn’t mandate virtual start

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon at a press conference updating school protocols.

Maryland’s state schools superintendent announced Wednesday that schools should set a goal of returning students to classrooms by the end of the year, but allowed districts to make their own decision on virtual versus in-person instruction when fall classes begin.

School systems can choose to implement a more restrictive recovery plan than the state’s, but the driving goal should be returning students to in-person instruction, Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said. She spoke at a news conference with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan at the State House in Annapolis.

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The Maryland State Department of Education has set three “guardrails” for the 2020-21 school year. School systems must adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for schools, comply with state health protocols for addressing an outbreak of COVID-19 and include equity as a bench mark for local recovery plans, Salmon said.

“The reopening of schools is a deeply personal issue,” Salmon said. She said she hoped to strike a balance between safety and education.

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Salmon also said school systems must ensure safe transportation, develop a procedure for taking attendance, and address a “persistent digital divide” to ensure that some students aren’t disadvantaged relative to others.

School systems have until Aug. 14 to develop and submit education and recovery plans to the Maryland State Board of Education for review.

Most of the school systems in the Baltimore area have already announced plans to begin the school year virtually, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, and will decide later whether to add in-person classes. Harford County will have online classes, but is also opening learning centers where students can work through online lessons with an adult.

Some school systems have pushed the start of the year until after Labor Day.

Salmon said virtual learning will look very different from it did before because the summer is providing systems time to work on it.

Harford County superintendent Sean Bulson said Salmon’s announcement provided some clarity as the district plans for the fall — especially maintaining the 6-foot spacing recommended by the CDC. But Carroll County superintendent Steve Lockard said the approach outlined by Salmon’s guardrails had already been incorporated in his system’s plans.

Some education advocates say the guardrails do not go far enough in guiding school systems.

Leslie Margolis, managing attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, called the state’s strategy “patchwork” and said she worries that some children may get left behind this year.

“This is an opportunity to reshape what education looks like,” Margolis said. “It requires the state to step out and not just set up guardrails, but to actually pave the road and assert a level of leadership.”

Nationally, decisions to reopen school buildings have caused friction between education authorities and teachers unions.

Following Salmon’s announcement, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, the statewide teachers union, called on school systems to begin the year with virtual learning.

“Virtual learning is not a perfect solution, but it’s the safest, and focusing on just one mode of education enables educators to direct their total attention to making it more rigorous and equitable,” said union president Cheryl Bost in a statement. “We must do all we can to get the virus under control so that we can safely return to in-person learning — which we know is most beneficial to our students over the long term.”

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Bost also called for more funding from the federal, state, and local levels to help safely reopen schools.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Colin Campbell and Catalina Righter and contributed to this article.

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