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Del. Szeliga’s bill would give authority to create statewide virtual public schools in Maryland after pandemic

While many Maryland students, teachers and parents have struggled with online schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, some students have thrived while learning in the virtual environment.

Legislation in the Maryland General Assembly, put forth by Del. Kathy Szeliga, would allow local boards of education, the state education department and even institutions of higher education to start virtual public schools that students could attend free of charge.

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“COVID has been terrible in so many ways, but one way that we can see some positive things [from the pandemic], is that we now know some students actually really thrive in this environment,” Szeliga said Wednesday.

Szeliga, a Republican who represents western Harford and eastern Baltimore County, presented House Bill 1170 for a hearing Wednesday before the House Ways and Means Committee. She noted virtual education would benefit students who have special needs, students who are served through their school system’s “home and hospital” program, or those who have learning styles that do not fit with traditional brick-and-mortar school programs.

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“Virtual education can be dynamic and effective for teaching students of all ages, especially when designed for this method,” she said.

Szeliga, who stressed that her bill is not meant for charter schools, noted that companies with a presence in Maryland, such as Pearson Education, could provide what she described as “a public school option for virtual learning.”

Mickey Revenaugh, a co-founder of Connections Academy, also spoke in support of the bill. Connections Academy, which is part of Pearson and headquartered in Howard County, provides tuition-free online public schools for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in multiple states.

Connections was founded in 2001 in response to American families’ “emerging desire” for alternatives to traditional education, according to Revenaugh. She said it has become clear over the past 20 years that “technology could allow the idea of the school as a place, one size fits all, to be transformed into any time, anywhere, personalized learning for students.”

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“When COVID hit a year ago, Connections Academy students kept right on learning without a hitch,” she said. Revenaugh added that, when schools closed in the spring, Connections students reached out to peers doing what she called “emergency remote schooling” to offer assistance in getting acclimated to the virtual format.

Enrollment in Connections Academy schools has grown by about 40% nationwide during the past year, Revenaugh said.

The Harford school system plans to return the majority of its nearly 38,000 students to full-time, in-person learning next year, with the virtual program available through the Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen. HCPS officials also plan to change the name of the facility.

Szeliga’s bill allows school districts, the state or higher education institutions to establish an online school that is available on a statewide basis, rather than just for students in a local district. The bill also makes those online schools exempt from state education requirements related to the length of the academic year, attendance, curriculum, class sizes, instruction, staff-to-student ratios, professional development for staff and textbooks.

The virtual school could not enroll more than 1% of the school-age children who live in each county, and it could not charge tuition or fees, according to the bill. It would be a Maryland public school, and the state would be required to allocate funding in line with that virtual school’s total enrollment, plus the federal and state operating funds that go to county boards of education — divided by the county’s full-time enrollment, according to the bill.

Committee member Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard County, asked Szeliga about the exemptions from state education requirements in the bill and whether virtual public schools would still follow those regulations.

“It’s a less traditional model, and so we had to exclude those things to be able to have enabling legislation to let a county engage in a contract with a company that does this,” Szeliga said of virtual schooling.

Ebersole asked if being aligned with education regulations could be part of the requests for proposals put out by school districts when seeking companies to operate the virtual schools.

“It would be up to the county, so the county that creates that system can leave those requirements in place,” Szeliga replied.

Revenaugh, of Connections Academy, said that “generally speaking,” her company’s virtual schools comply with other states’ requirements related to curriculum, standardized testing, services for students with special needs, “everything that makes a public school a public school within the state.”

“We’re not looking to exclude them from any of the requirements the state has in place,” Szeliga noted.

Republican Del. Kevin Hornberger of Cecil County, another committee member, asked about the need for virtual schools as students start going back to their classrooms.

“Any county that adopts this kind of public online full-time virtual program would be able to serve kids that really are thriving in this environment,” Szeliga reiterated.

A number of people testified in favor of Szeliga’s bill, including parents, a student and educators. Two people testified from states that have such virtual schools, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Harford County parent Olivia Crudup was among those who testified in favor. Crudup has two daughters, and her oldest is slated to start kindergarten next year. Her youngest daughter and husband have health issues that make in-person schooling risky, however, and a friend recommended that Crudup enroll her older daughter in a private virtual academy provided through Pearson.

Based on the experiences of her friend’s children in virtual learning, as well as her own research, Crudup has “come to the understanding that this is the best option for my children’s education.”

“If HB1170 is approved, my daughter will have a whole new world of education open to her to thrive, with the necessary building blocks of education,” Crudup said.

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She said her family cannot afford an online private school, and she noted that a virtual public school will give her daughter personalized learning with teachers trained to provide virtual education, plus there will be opportunities to develop social skills.

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“This will be dramatically beneficial for all the children who do not have the option to attend in-person school, and gives families like ours the opportunity to provide the best option of learning for their children within our financial means,” Crudup said.

One parent, Dayana Bergman of Baltimore County, testified against the bill, however. Bergman noted that Baltimore County Public Schools gives families options for alternative learning such as home schooling and an eLearning program, and they were available prior to the pandemic.

“I think we’re already doing this, and we’ve been doing a really good job as a school system providing these multiple choices and options for students in Baltimore County,” she said.

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