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A slow start to coronavirus distance-learning for schools in Maryland | COMMENTARY

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon announced Friday that school building closures in the state would be extended to May 15. They stopped short of closing them through the rest of the school year, as most other states have done.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon announced Friday that school building closures in the state would be extended to May 15. They stopped short of closing them through the rest of the school year, as most other states have done. (PAMELA WOOD/The Baltimore Sun)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe, it’s that swift action is critical to not only stem the spread of the virus, but to adequately prepare for life amid stay-home orders and business shutdowns, as well as whatever comes beyond. Americans who stockpiled toilet paper in early March, to mockery from the rest of us, for example, are rightfully smug today.

But while Maryland has largely been a leader in U.S. pandemic preparedness, forming an early team of medical advisors and declaring a state of emergency a week before the president, there’s one area in which we lagged behind: the so-called “distance learning” that’s supposed to stand in for our children’s classroom education.

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A report released earlier this month by the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that Maryland was slow to offer certain guidance regarding remote education in the final days of March — a critical time when all 50 states had shuttered public schools at least temporarily in an effort to slow the infection rate (Maryland closed its schools on March 16th). Of 21 criteria outlined in the report, “Remote Learning Guidance from State Education Agencies During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A First Look,” Maryland had met only three by March 31, coming in dead last.

Texas appeared the best prepared by MIT’s measures, which looked at whether remote learning guidance was available, along with key recommendations for instruction, and plans for dealing with equity and access to technology issues. That state had 17 such conditions in place at the time, followed by Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee, each with 16.

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Since then, Maryland has added several criteria (up to seven out of 21), and a report author has recently warned against “inferring that an absence of guidance from a particular state on a particular issue represents an absence of concern from those state policymakers.”

But coming in last in the early days raises concerns about how much catch-up we’re playing now, particularly as other states make longer term plans for education. At least 39 states have made the call to officially keep their school buildings closed through the remainder of the school year, focusing completely on distance learning. Thus far, Maryland has only conceded that classes will not be held before mid-May.

That paves the way for piecemeal planning. When schools were first shuttered March 16th, they were to remain closed through March 27. That was later changed to April 24th. And last week, it was changed again to May 15th. The extensions have the feel of buying time.

In a statement issued Friday, State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon said school systems will use the weeks between now and the 15th “to examine every option and continue to develop a long-term plan for recovery.” They will also submit learning plans, if they haven’t already, that address the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, give a sample teacher and student day, and offer a plan of accountability and professional development for staff, along with a description of how the system will handle equity issues.

We would have expected that to be happening in earnest six weeks ago, when schools were first shuttered. Twelve states had sample syllabi in place by the end of March, according to the MIT report, and 35 had statements about digital versus non-digital learning opportunities; MIT found neither in Maryland.

We understand that online education is never going to be as good as classroom learning, particularly for kids who were struggling before now, and that there are enormous difficulties in pulling together meaningful programs at a moment’s notice, especially with resources and funding in flux. But the stakes could not be higher. The Maryland General Assembly spent most of the legislative session (before it, too, was cut short) driving home the need for billions-of-dollars-worth of sweeping education reform in the state and painting a dire picture of how far behind our children already are. Those kids deserve our best efforts at every point along the way; they will not get this time back.

Superintendent Salmon seems to understand the state is in for a long transitional period, even without yet shuttering schools for the academic year. In her statement, she mentions potential “plans for additional digital learning and the recovery of any lost instructional time in the form of expanding summer school programs.”

We’ll take that as a sign a lesson has been learned.

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.

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