As COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the state, Maryland State Department of Education officials announced Monday that they would only support a local school system’s transition to online learning “under the most exigent of circumstances.”
Maryland education leaders addressed the rising cases around the state and country in a statement Monday, declaring that the department would support a local school system’s return to online learning only on a case-by-case basis and in close consultation with health experts.
Maryland school systems that wish to temporarily close schools should have guardrails in place to ensure student access to a learning device and live instruction. They also will need to “immediately and aggressively” work to bring students back to in-person attendance, the announcement states.
“We must keep schools open for in-person instruction to ensure excellent educational opportunities and strong outcomes for all students, especially those who have been historically underserved and most impacted by the suspension of in-person learning,” state schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said in the announcement. “There is strong consensus from researchers that schools can and should stay open for in-person instruction and that school leaders must use every tool at their disposal to do so given the adverse effects closures have on students and their families.”
Choudhury pointed to what he called the “devastating” impact of school closures and long-term virtual instruction on Maryland students. Standardized test results released two weeks ago showed a dramatic drop in student achievement scores during the pandemic.
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“When COVID-19 transmission increases and health measures become a necessity, schools must be the last places to close,” he said. “With unprecedented federal and State resources and tools, we can keep schools safely open for in-person, full-time learning.”
The announcement comes as cases are spiking across the state and Maryland’s 24 school systems are closing for winter break. State education officials have maintained an emergency masking requirement in schools this fall and winter.
In Baltimore County, school leaders pledged to keep schools open for in-person learning unless directed to close by local or state officials. In the same message, officials instructed students and staff to bring learning devices home over winter break in case closures are announced.
That stands in contrast to Prince George’s County schools, where all students will move to online learning this week and Jan. 3-14. Special education students attending nonpublic programs will continue to receive transportation services for in-person instruction.
“If a local school system feels that it must temporarily adapt to virtual learning at an individual school or in a targeted manner to keep its school community safe, the flexibility exists for the local school system to do so,” the announcement states.
The department and Maryland Board of Education officials said they will work with local school systems, departments of health and other stakeholders to ensure the safety of students and staff. They will continue to monitor conditions throughout the state and provide updates to the local school system calendar as needed, according to the announcement.
“Our objective is to keep children and staff safe in in-person classroom environments, because we know that out of school virtual learning is simply not as effective for many students as signaled by Maryland’s first marking period diminished academic achievement and increased achievement gaps,” said Clarence C. Crawford, the state board president, in the announcement. “We are asking that our stakeholders continue to partner with us in layered public health strategies to keep schools open for in-person instruction and safe to accelerate student achievement and support social-emotional health moving forward.”