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‘It is uncharted territory’: Two-week closure due to the coronavirus forces schools to find ways to maintain instruction

Dr. Karen Salmon, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, announces closure of schools from March 16 to March 27 after Gov. Larry Hogan announced the first case of community transmission of the coronavirus in the state. March 12, 2020.
Dr. Karen Salmon, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, announces closure of schools from March 16 to March 27 after Gov. Larry Hogan announced the first case of community transmission of the coronavirus in the state. March 12, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s top education official has ordered all public schools to close for two weeks beginning Monday in an unprecedented move that leaves administrators rushing to prepare plans to feed students, rethink testing and worry about hourly workers who might not be paid.

The action, announced at Gov. Larry Hogan’s press conference on Thursday evening, drew praise from teachers and parents who said there is broad anxiety in the community about the spread of COVID-19.

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“We are appreciative that the governor and legislature is taking the lead and making sure there are precautions to protect the health and the safety of our communities,” said Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing the majority of the state’s teachers.

The governor recommended all private schools close as well, and one after another schools quickly announced closings, including all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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Maryland has not ordered schools to close for more than a day in recent memory. It is only the second state in the nation to take this action because of the coronavirus. Friday, the District of Columbia announced schools would close for at least two weeks, joining Maryland and four other states. In states harder hit by the virus, such as Washington state, only some counties have closed.

Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon has suggested that school systems keep schools open during spring break, which for many students is April 6th through April 13. If that happens, then students would only lose about four days of school, an interruption not greater than a long winter snow storm.

However, there were hints that the closure could extend far longer. In a statement, Salmon said administrators, faculty, staff and parents should “begin to prepare for and implement measures for the continuity of educational services during a prolonged period.”

Sending home a million school children will disrupt the lives of thousands of workers who must find child care or miss work to stay home. And so the state education department is developing plans to make sure that the children of emergency services personnel have access to childcare. How that will happen in the next three days is unclear and Salmon declined to be interviewed.

"We don’t know what the future will bring. We are out for two weeks. Is that the end of it or will it be longer,” said Baltimore County Superintendent Darryl Williams. Lots of questions remain to be answered, he said, about graduation or spring athletics or testing. “We don’t have those particulars. We are really taking it day by day.”

The county schools also canceled all field trips and athletic events starting Friday until further notice, according to a phone call home to parents.

A number of questions remained about how the effects of a prolonged closure of state public schools might effect children and their parents. The number one issue for most educators was feeding students who are regularly served breakfast and lunch at school. In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, alone, about 100,000 students depend on those meals.

Shantay Jackson, whose son is a senior at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore, said it’s vital the district find a way to continue feeding students. While she’s concerned about students losing classroom time, Jackson said the immediate focus must be on ensuring families can find daycare, that homeless students are taken care of and free meals are distributed.

“This isn’t a game to be played,” she said. “We’re talking about people’s lives.”

Bost said she’s concerned that children have their basic needs taken care of and are not left alone while parents work. She’s also concerned that the thousands of hourly workers in schools are paid even if they aren’t doing their jobs.

“It is uncharted territory that we have never been in before,” Bost said, adding she wants to help people who could lose pay and potentially lose their houses.

A prolonged closure she said would be “devastating” for the education of children, but she said teachers were growing concerned about the potential of being exposed to the virus in their classrooms. Children have shown to be less affected by the virus.

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The two-week closure also covers the start of state testing and an SAT exam day, according to Bost.

Williams said the break allows the school system to deep clean buses and school buildings. In addition, it may calm the “rumors and disinformation.”

Children will be fed, he said, and the county is now working on the logistics. He said they will likely use the same routine used during the summer months, but in a carry-out form that children and families can pick up.

And hourly workers may have plenty of work, he said, because they will be needed for cleaning and food preparation.

The federal government is expected to give some leeway to school systems that close down because of the coronavirus. On Thursday, the federal education department issued guidance saying it would consider one-year waivers from state testing, and that schools might not need to provide special education students services while closed.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Warner I. Sumpter, the president of the Maryland State School Board, said Salmon had consulted the board leadership before the announcement was made at the governor’s press conference.

“It is the right thing to do as a precaution rather than be sorry later,” he said.

While schools are closed, the buildings and buses will be cleaned and disinfected.

Jackson said she was relieved the state superintendent made a blanket decision for all of Maryland’s 24 school districts.

“It’s a demonstration of the commitment to keeping all our kids safe,” said Jackson, a former Baltimore Parent Community Advisory Board leader. “Having this unified message is something that’s really important.”

Jackson said she can tell there’s been a shift in how people are thinking about this new coronavirus, even just in conversations with her son. A week ago, he and many other people felt COVID-19 wasn’t something to worry about. Now, he’s having conversations with his friends about travel bans and widespread cancellations.

“You can hear a sense of urgency in the conversations that our young people are having,” she said.

Reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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