The Anne Arundel County Board of Education raised questions this week about legislation proposed in the Maryland General Assembly to establish statewide rules for virtual schooling programs.
At its meeting Wednesday, the school board debated at length the merits of the bills, SB820, SB829 and SB610, all of which would require Maryland school districts that decide to establish virtual schooling to adopt a plan for a virtual learning environment. School districts would need to develop teacher preparation plans, plans for virtual instruction days as a result of severe weather and a process for accepting students into these programs.
Only Senate Bill 610, introduced by Baltimore Democrat Mary B. Washington and co-sponsored by Linthicum Democrat Pam Beidle, passed out of the chamber where it was introduced before crossover day Monday. Bills passed to either the House or Senate before the cutoff face fewer hurdles to becoming law during the remaining three weeks of the session. The bill has a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee on March 29.
According to an amended version of the bill approved by the Senate on March 17, all students who are enrolled in virtual-school programs would be required to be eligible for in-person extracurricular activities that are run by the host brick-and-mortar school.
“Like every innovative idea in education, we want to address equity among both in-person and virtual students,” Washington said. “We are thinking about how we approach virtual learning as an innovation in education and use all the tools available for our students to succeed.”
Currently, students who attend Anne Arundel County’s Virtual Academy — the only independently functioning virtual school in the state — may not participate in in-person extracurriculars. The school system has instead encouraged students to seek opportunities through community organizations.
In written testimony on SB610, the school system offered support for the bill with amendments, but asked that the in-person extracurriculars requirement be removed because it goes against existing policies.
“As these students are unable to participate in in-person learning, it is not appropriate to make in-person extracurricular and athletic opportunities available to them,” the school system wrote.
“I feel strongly that virtual students should have the opportunity to participate in in-person extracurriculars,” said Beidle, who sponsored a bill with similar language this session that didn’t receive a committee vote. “It’s a school experience that everyone should have.”
Anne Arundel County’s Virtual Academy was established in 2021 to provide schooling to children in grades 3 to 12 who have a personal medical condition or a medical condition in the household, or those with social and emotional barriers that prevent them from attending brick-and-mortar schools within the county.
The virtual academy provides students with real-time, synchronous, instruction 4.5 to 6 hours per day from certified county educators. They participate in county-approved curriculum and assessments and all in-person mandatory Maryland State assessments.
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Additionally, students have time during the school day for small-group academic coaching and co-curricular clubs. Students attending the virtual academy do not have access to school-sponsored athletics.
“There are a myriad of issues that would need to be addressed with answers regarding funding responsibility that include, but are not limited to, issues like transportation to said in-person extra-curricular activities,” the school system’s spokesperson Bob Mosier said.
Melissa Ellis, a District 4 board representative, said during Wednesday’s meeting that she was “uncomfortable” with how the school system’s testimony on the legislation is written. Ellis made a motion that would remove the language in the school system’s written testimony related to in-person, school-sponsored extracurriculars.
“While I cannot say that I support these bills specifically, I am uncomfortable with our position with how it’s written,” she said.
Board member Dana Schallheim, who represents District 5, said she was uncomfortable changing the testimony “on the fly.”
“It just seems like a road that I am not willing scamper down without knowing the implications of any of this,” Schallheim said. “It’s not that I do not support providing virtual academy students in-person extracurricular opportunities; however, we need to both respect the superintendent’s purview over daily school operations and our policy on making policy.”
Ellis’s motion failed 5-3.