While the decision to keep Central Maryland school buildings closed through January may protect students and staff from the coronavirus, education advocates say the choice also means thousands of children will likely suffer lifelong academic consequences.
The historic gaps in achievement between low-income students of color and middle-class students will grow deeper, they say, even as protesters across the nation call for a reckoning on racial inequities.
In addition, they warn that the youngest students, English learners and students with disabilities are all going to find it difficult to make academic progress because they will not get the in-person teaching they need.
“There will be large pockets of our children who will not be able to access education — and those are the most vulnerable students in our city, who can least afford to lose another quarter of learning,” said Roger Schulman, president of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit that works to support Baltimore’s schools and close equity gaps.
Maryland’s private and Catholic schools plan to reopen their classroom doors this September. And across the country, public school parents who can afford to hire tutors are already setting up home schooling pods of children who will have longer, structured school days.
But tens of thousands of Maryland public school students who do not have access to reliable internet connection or whose parents do not have jobs that allow them to stay home will get less out of their lessons.
“We can expect the academic gap to grow,” said John King, president of the Education Trust and a former U.S. secretary of education.
On the most recent statewide Maryland tests, Black and Latino elementary and middle school students scored about 30 percentage points lower than all other students, with similar gaps seen for low-income students.
A recent study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company suggests that the disparity will grow. It estimated that if schools were entirely online until January, on average white students would lose 6 months of learning, Hispanic students 9 months, Black students 10 months and low-income students more than a year during the time school buildings have closed for the pandemic.
“It did not have to be this way. We could have made the investments. We could have put the resources toward schools,” King said. He believes there has been a failure by the federal government to control the virus, and a failure to provide resources where they are needed.
Nine of Maryland’s 24 school systems have announced plans for next year, all of them opting to begin the year with online classes. In Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, all instruction will be conducted in virtual classrooms for the first semester. Baltimore County says it hopes to provide laptops for each of its students.
Harford County is also going online until January, but it is opening each of its schools to allow a small number of students to come for reliable internet and supervision. Students will still learn through online instruction, but they will have access to bus transportation and meals.
Carroll County has not yet made a decision on how its school year will begin.
Baltimore City schools chief Sonja Santelises has not given up the notion that some return to school classrooms in the first semester is possible. Classes will be online for the first quarter, which ends in November, but a decision will be announced in October whether to have some in-person instruction as well.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Santelises said she would like to offer parents the option to have their children return to school for small classes with teachers who volunteer to do in-person teaching.
Sitting on Santelises’ desk is a large Comcast bill. If the school system pays it, some 7,000 families — representing 15,000 to 20,000 students — won’t lose internet service. The families signed up for 60 days of free internet that is about to expire. The bill to continue their service: $650,000.
The Baltimore City schools chief says she will pay it, even though she is not quite sure what she will cut from her budget to afford it.
She has also ordered spending about $3 million to make sure the air filters and HVAC systems in schools are up-to-date and operating properly to protect children and staff if they go back. And she has bought 35,000 new computers, using $3 million city officials provided from a youth fund and other sources. About 20,000 have been distributed, and the remainder will be delivered in the next few weeks.
Santelises said she is confident she can get a device in the hands of every student who doesn’t now have one. But she can’t solve the connectivity problems in a city where large swaths of neighborhoods do not have access to reliable internet, despite the concerted efforts of hundreds of individuals and nonprofits over the past several months to expand informal networks.
The school system has negotiated with T-Mobile for 10,000 hot spots, but they won’t be enough.
“The reality is, yes, we are now depending on the charisma and the debate ability of a superintendent to provide internet that should be a public utility,” Santelises said. “Because there is no collective will at the federal and, frankly, at the state level to push this.”
City Council member Zeke Cohen, along with council members in Detroit and Philadelphia, introduced a resolution calling for Comcast to increase the internet speeds of its basic service, extend free internet for more than 60 days, and allow anyone to have access to the public hot spots around cities.
“When we say Black Lives Matter and then deny children in a majority Black city the opportunity to obtain an education because they can’t get online, we are exposing one of the great hypocrisies of our society,” Cohen said.
Comcast has a 10-year franchise agreement with the city, but advocates say some neighborhoods have remained without access for reasons that aren’t clear. In a statement, Comcast said the company has made it easier for Baltimore families to get online.
“We proactively offered 60 days of free service to any new customers, waived all back due debt, and opened thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots in outdoor and small business locations across the city,” Comcast said. But the company said it will take school and city officials, nonprofit partners and other businesses to solve the complex problem.
Exactly how many students across the state or in the city won’t be able to access online classes isn’t clear. Students in rural areas in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore have also had difficulties.
Gov. Larry Hogan has provided $20 million of federal CARES Act money to expand rural broadband and $5 million for urban areas. Another $100 million has gone to school systems across the state to purchase laptops for students.
Santelises said school principals are being asked to reach out to every student to get a reliable assessment of the problem.
Haydee Berdejo González , a City College junior, said the pace of her learning has slowed since school buildings were closed in March. The 18-year-old was born in the U.S., but her parents moved back to Mexico and she grew up speaking Spanish. When schools closed, she lost the chance to practice speaking with classmates and get after-school help from teachers.
González and her brother received a computer from her school, but their family doesn’t have internet so they relied on hot spots on their phone to join classes. Her academic difficulties multiplied as she struggled to understand assignments delivered by email.
”At least when we’re in the classroom, they explain things on the blackboard,” she said. “During the online classes, there isn’t much that they explain visually.”
The decisions by local systems to open with classes entirely online were made despite advice from public health experts who argued that the educational and other benefits to children of opening schools far outweighed the health risks. They said schools could be opened in states where the community spread is under control.
While state education officials in Maryland have taken a hands-off approach, allowing local school systems to decide whether to open, some critics want the state to exert more authority, including demanding clear standards for teaching students.
In a letter to the Maryland State Department of Education on Wednesday, the Maryland Education Coalition, made up of local advocacy groups, criticized the state for its failure to ensure that all students are able to get an education during the pandemic. While the education department has said each school system’s plans must assure equity for students of all backgrounds, the state has not provided clear standards for school systems to meet that goal, the coalition letter said.
The letter called on the state to demand that every school system find a way to provide in-person teaching to students who aren’t successful learning remotely. And it said there should be a standardized system for tracking attendance and participation in distance instruction, and for assessing whether students are learning.
State schools superintendent Karen Salmon declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the group’s demands.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said there’s been a failure of leadership on the part of the state education department to put forward clear expectations for learning.
“How can we assure kids are learning?” he said. “In my mind this is an abdication of moral responsibility. This is a moment when people need clear direction.”
He acknowledged that decisions on whether schools should open were not easy to make.
“The political pressures in every direction are tremendous,” he said. “Part of the job of the state is to provide the infrastructure and cover for superintendents to make the tough decisions.”
He said local school systems are more likely to choose a path that makes fewer political waves than “trying to figure out what is in the best interest of kids.”
For Santelises many factors went into the decision to open online for the first quarter, in hopes of opening school buildings after that. A survey showed that about 50% of parents wanted schools to reopen with safety protocols in place, but teachers were calling for all virtual learning.
The city offered summer school this month to about 300 students in a few schools. They gave first priority to students they believed had had the most difficulty learning online. Santelises said she will take the lessons learned from that and work to build community support.
She is considering many options for later in the first semester, including putting up tents at some school locations to provide safer open-air classrooms and cafeterias, and bringing back “the kids who have been most hurt or worst served by distance learning.”
King, the former U.S. education secretary, said for many students school is often “the safe consistent place in their lives.”
“I worry a lot about health, trauma, abuse, addiction, domestic violence,” he said. This moment, King said, calls for moral choices.
“I think the reality is that the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter and the statements of solidarity with protesters have not been met with the substantive policies that will address inequities,” he said. “I think that is the question for the country. How will we move from rhetoric to reality?”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this article.