For Maryland schools, coronavirus calls for creative solutions | COMMENTARY

Dr. Karen Salmon, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, answers questions at a media conference Gov. Larry Hogan holds outside the governor's mansion last week. On Wednesday, March 25, she announced that the state's K-12 public schools will remain closed through at least April 24.
Dr. Karen Salmon, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, answers questions at a media conference Gov. Larry Hogan holds outside the governor's mansion last week. On Wednesday, March 25, she announced that the state's K-12 public schools will remain closed through at least April 24.(Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon’s announcement Wednesday morning that Maryland’s K-12 public schools won’t be reopening on March 30, as hoped, but instead will remain closed four more weeks, through at least April 24, leaves systems scrambling to find ways to educate students. It is no easy task. None were prepared for a pandemic. And what’s emerged so far from school systems does not inspire confidence. It’s been a hodgepodge of worksheets and resource links posted on school system web sites with promises of better things to come. It is not the virtual classroom educators have been talking about for years.

In fact, some teachers have thus far been told not to teach.


Last week, a longtime Howard County high school teacher received an email from his school system that left him thunderstruck. He had been posting material for his advanced placement students on the county’s interactive web site so that they could continue their studies, despite the statewide dismissal necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak. The email instructed him and other teachers to, in effect, stand down during the initial closure. Sharing lessons or study materials was a potential violation of federal law, the email warned, saying it was "imperative that teachers and/or school teams do not provide direct/ongoing general instruction from March 16 to March 29.”

We commend the school system for being mindful of educational inequities and the need to avoid worsening them, particularly for special education students, who, under federal law, are entitled to an equivalent education to their classmates. Relying on computers and home access to the internet can be problematic to those goals; that doesn’t, however, mean they shouldn’t be used at all. As the school systems gear up for a longer closure, it’s important they take a more layered approach to remote education.

There may be no more pressing issue for public schools than greater equity, but in an emergency, schools can’t afford to hold back opportunities for some students because they can’t be offered uniformly to all. We must do the best with the bad hand we’ve been dealt. And that means offering different types of learning tools for different groups, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all-or-none method. Schools must meet students where they are, whether that’s in an AP class or remedial reading.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises seems to recognize this. In an email to parents this week, she said administrators were “exploring a variety of distance-based learning methods with the goal of providing each student with access to a learning experience, including supporting efforts to keep them connected personally to their school communities.” Beginning April 6th, she wrote, “students will be provided schoolwork using a wide variety of options based on their needs and access to technology. In some cases, this could include access to online options such as Google Classrooms. Schools will also continue the use of student work packets, its education cable television channel and help desks to help students complete the learning activities.”

School systems should, of course, do everything within their power to help all students in whatever ways they can, distributing work on paper for those who require it and online for those who don’t. New York City, which offers public Wi-Fi access in certain parts of the city, has taken the extraordinary step of handing out 175,000 laptops to students in need, with more on the way.

Ideally, Maryland could match that for low-income families, and provide free internet access at the same time, but we aren’t holding our breath. The state should not go to the other extreme, though, in which school districts, such as Philadelphia’s, are foregoing online learning altogether because of equity concerns. That wastes a valuable teaching tool for those who can access it.

There’s simply no question that schools should be closed in light of a global pandemic that’s already taken the lives of four Marylanders. Nor is it a question that it’s a terrible option for everyone. Children should be with their peers in a dedicated learning environment, not hunched over worksheets or screens while their parents try to work around them, if they’re lucky enough to still work in this crisis.

Imperfect, stop-gap solutions may be the best parents can reasonably hope for from their school systems in this situation. And many students will likely be shortchanged, including those with disabilities and in low-income households. That’s a dismal circumstance, but it’s reality. Still, coronavirus or not, children still have a right to a public education, and the state’s schools have a duty to provide the best options they can for everyone.


The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.