While about half of students in the country will be able to go back to their school buildings this week, those in Central Maryland will remain glued to computer screens in their bedrooms and kitchens with no clear idea of when they might get back to in-person classes.
Throughout the pandemic, few students in suburban Maryland counties have been back inside a school, despite months when COVID-19 rates were relatively low and other districts across the nation — such as New York City and Providence, Rhode Island — were opening back up.
The reasons for this disparity, experts say, is a mix of politics, union opposition, strong local control of schools and the failure of federal and state leaders to set clear safety guidelines early in the pandemic. Whether any of those factors can change in the next month or two is a question that families are clamoring to have answered. A contingent of furious parents say they have sent thousands of emails and letters, and protested in front of courthouses and school board offices with no success.
“When you leave it to local control, it is going to become hundreds of political battles, and superintendents need cover and help,” said Robin Lake, at the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle. Lake has studied reopening plans in 500 districts around the nation and found whether a district decided to have in-person classes was not always related to the level of COVID-19 in the community, but rather to the politics of the region and the strength of teachers unions.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and State Superintendent Karen Salmon have advocated for schools to reopen.
“There is broad agreement among public health experts that students should be in school — especially our underserved students — and that schools are not contributing to the spread of the virus,” Salmon said in a statement. But Hogan and Salmon have stopped short of ordering them open, saying that it is up to local school boards and superintendents.
Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the lack of clear federal guidance on when to open schools has also played a role.
“This is a failure of federal leadership. I don’t know why the districts in Iowa are different than the districts in Maryland,” he said.
But Maryland’s health metrics — announced in August — suggest schools shouldn’t be opened, noted Kelly Griffith, president of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland.
“That is what we have been following because that is our guidance,“ Griffith said. “We are not health experts. We are not scientists. We will take the advice of our health officers.” If the state wants to change those metrics, she said, then it should do that.
In recent months, local health officials have not been consistent around the state, with some deciding reopening is possible and others saying it isn’t, Griffith said.
The result in Maryland is that reopening decisions have caused deep disagreements among school district leadership, school boards and the public. In Howard County, for instance, parents sued to strip the student school board member of his right to vote on the issue in an attempt to break a logjam on the board that left reopening undecided.
After announcing in September plans to bring a limited number of students back to classrooms in November, Baltimore County reversed course and has no schedule for reopening. Anne Arundel, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George’s are also closed for in-person instruction. Carroll closed for in-person instruction in November, but the school board will discuss Monday whether to put some students back in classrooms in early January.
No one wants to force every child back into school buildings, but parents say they want an option to send their children back if they feel it is safe. With COVID-19 rates high now, even some parents advocating for change don’t believe schools should reopen until the numbers are lower, but they say some districts don’t even have a plan to get students back.
Parents say they have lost the argument — so far — against teachers unions, who have advocated for schools to stay closed until districts can accommodate a list of safety demands.
“It seems like a stalemate and the teachers union seems to be winning,” said Brian Taylor, a Howard County parent of two high school students.
Derek Turner, the Montgomery County schools chief of engagement, innovations and operations, said every decision on reopening depends on coronavirus data. The county is considering a Feb. 1 opening.
“We are not going to rush into reopening schools when the metrics aren’t there,” Turner said.
Former Maryland State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said the answer is better collaboration.
“This is a crisis. You have to work as a team,” said Grasmick who suggests that state leaders need to bring together the district superintendents, teachers unions and health experts to work out a common approach that would allow schools to reopen for in-person instruction.
“There are so many children that are losing out on an education in the state,” she said, adding that health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said as recently as late November that school leaders should try to keep schools open.
Multiple studies have shown the risk of spread of the virus in schools is low, and private and parochial schools in the state have opened.
Across the nation, reopening decisions seem to have been influenced by political leanings as much as by virus levels.
Burbio is a company that aggregates community events across the country, but also tracks the status of 1,200 school districts. Its data shows that Maryland and the District of Columbia, as well as the Western states of California, Oregon and Washington have mostly remained closed, while Sunbelt states have reopened.
The Midwest and Northeastern states have gone to in-person classes for part of the week, according to Dennis Roche, who cofounded Burbio. Those geographic and philosophical differences also appear to be influenced by whether there is a strong local leader, like New York City’s mayor, who recently reopened schools.
“The role of the governor has a very high impact,” Roche said. Hogan is the only Republican governor who has not gotten a high percentage of students back in-person.
In the beginning of the school year, by Burbio’s count, about 60% of the nation’s students were in all online classes. But by mid-fall, only 37% were online only.
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Some of Maryland’s suburban counties did open classes for small numbers of special education, homeless and other vulnerable students, but most didn’t offer to bring back the general population. Rural counties in the state were more likely to have large numbers of students back. Griffith, superintendent in Talbot County, had her schools open for a majority of students for about five weeks. They are now closed, but Griffith has told parents she will be reviewing her assessment each week. That opportunity, some parents in suburban districts say, was missed by larger districts.
A study by McKinsey and Co. released in early December showed that online learning has been a setback for all students. On average, students will be half a year behind by the end of June unless action is taken to get them back in school or improve the lessons over the computer. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared to four to eight months for white students.
The only district to buck the trend in the Baltimore region is the city school system, where CEO Sonja Santelises has methodically gotten more students back in schools every month. Some 27 city schools are open for as many as 2,000 students. Santelises said parents of color are more reluctant to send their children back than in many suburban districts. She remains determined to expand in-person classes, because so many of her students are more vulnerable and likely to lose academic ground.
To address teacher safety concerns, Salmon and school superintendents have asked that teachers be prioritized for vaccines.
But for some parents, the question now is whether students will get back into schools by the end of the school year.
Valant, with the Brookings Institution, said the arrival of a new U.S. president and federal education secretary, both of who have said school reopening should be prioritized, may change the discussion.
“I think we will turn down the temperature on the politics of school reopening,” he said.