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State education board sets minimum online instruction requirement for Maryland schools to meet by end of 2020

Maryland’s state school board adopted a new requirement Tuesday for online instruction that requires a minimum of 3.5 hours a day of live instruction by a teacher, and gives school systems until the end of 2020 to put the standard in place.

The board rejected tougher benchmarks proposed by state schools superintendent Karen Salmon — with more hours and a tighter timeline — that drew harsh criticism from teachers and superintendents who said she was changing the rules at the start of the school year and upending lesson plans that had been underway for months.

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All 24 Maryland school systems are beginning the year online in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Sixteen districts have indicated that they will attempt to bring some groups of students back to classrooms beginning as early as mid-September.

The state education department posted Salmon’s latest proposal on the department’s website Saturday, but in the hours between then and the board meeting, the state’s teachers union had rallied the support of 20,000 people who signed a petition opposing it. School districts had an August 14 deadline to submit reopening plans to the state education department.

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Salmon and several state board members said they represent the views of many parents in the state who want more hours of instruction and the option of returning to school buildings. They said in-person classes are particularly important for students with disabilities, those learning English as a second language and high school students trying to earn professional certifications in career and technology classes.

“We were really concerned about the children that don’t learn well online ... the hundreds of parents who said they wanted more direct instruction,” Salmon said.

School board member Shawn Bartley from Montgomery County praised the work of Hogan and Salmon, saying they are responding to parent concerns about juggling work and their children’s online education.

But board member Lori Morrow of Prince George’s County said she was “really disappointed in the timing” because it has “caused a lot of confusion and frustration.”

A move to defer a decision for several weeks lost by one vote before school board members began rewriting Salmon’s proposal during the video meeting as they discussed it. The changes reduced the number of hours required for some students and significantly delayed the required implementation.

“We appreciate that the state board of education rejected Superintendent Salmon’s last-minute proposal to rip up local school schedules in a matter of weeks without thought for the confusion, stress, and chaos that would ensue,” Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said in a statement after the vote. But she said that “the poor communication and sudden changes ... from state leadership are deeply concerning and in dire need of improvement.”

Kelly Griffith, the president of the school superintendents association, said it is “so frustrating to be getting this information (decision) on September 1st!”

She said all 24 superintendents “have been working diligently” to do what is best for students and staff.

“Today’s late decision showed no respect for that hard work and commitment,” Griffith said.

The board’s proposal also will require any school system that has said it will not start in-person classes until the second semester to reevaluate those plans and submit them to the state by the third week in November.

The reevaluation is an attempt by the state to put pressure on local school systems to return students to school buildings by early 2021. Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan chided school systems for not putting in the “hard work” of figuring out how to get students back.

Hogan’s remarks coupled with Salmon’s proposal to require school systems to offer live online instruction five days a week for a certain number of hours, upset school superintendents, local boards of education and the teachers union.

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In recent decades, the school superintendents and local boards have rarely leveled harsh attacks on the state superintendent or the governor, but last week they were united in their condemnation of last-minute standards that they said should have been suggested in June and not in September.

And they were angered by Hogan’s suggestion that they were taking the easy way out, saying that he had left it up to the local districts and then intervened.

“These recommendations are rigid, lack basis in any specific academic research, and are extremely severe in what to date, has been a partnership during this crisis,” wrote Griffith, who is the superintendent in Talbot County, in the letter from all 24 superintendents.

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