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Maryland coronavirus education plan heavy on options, light on guidance| COMMENTARY

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announces that Maryland's public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus during a news conference on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announces that Maryland's public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus during a news conference on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte) (Brian Witte/AP)

We’re all for some level of autonomy within individual school systems and schools; leaders should be able to tailor instruction to fit the needs of their particular student bodies. But the Maryland State Board of Education’s “Recovery Plan for Education” isn’t so much a plan as it is a menu. It lists various options for reopening schools in the next academic year with minimal description of what each would look like or analysis of the risks and requirements involved.

And by risks, we’re not just talking about those posed from coronavirus, but also the risk of thousands of kids receiving an inferior education for the foreseeable future. They certainly have for the past 10 weeks. School systems around the country — like so many other American institutions — simply were not prepared to function amid a pandemic, despite warnings from U.S. scientific and intelligence communities that such a scenario was likely and mountains of research showing education environments are often ripe for transferring communicable diseases.

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Maryland schools are already behind in their planning for how to move forward, hampered by the slow decision making of the state school board regarding the extended closure of classrooms. Maryland was one of the last states in the country to announce that school buildings would remain shuttered for the rest of this academic year, and it only did so after previously announcing a two-week closure in March, then extending that a month, then extending it again a few more weeks until the final announcement was made on May 6, the same day the Recovery Plan was released. That left school systems in limbo, trying to figure out if their education plans were for the short term or long term. Much of their focus was on merely helping kids survive by getting them access to the free meals they used to receive when they were in a building.

Now that we all understand a return to normal is unlikely for quite some time, educators have three short months to sort it all out, while still working out the kinks of educating kids remotely for the rest of this school year.

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It’s a given that social distancing, and increased health and hygiene measures will be implemented for any kind of in-person instruction to take place anytime soon. But that — and the concession that fully virtual schools “produce less effective outcomes” than brick-and-mortar settings — are about all that’s obvious.

The state’s Recovery Plan lays out some interesting ideas, but what to make of them is left up to school systems. “Reduced class sizes may be expected to become the norm,” it reads. “One-on-one tutoring and/or small group direct instruction can be more effective” than a certain curriculum. Students in “earlier grades will experience more of a negative impact” by the learning slowdown than older kids. “Consider drive-by awarding of diplomas.”

Kids in class on alternate days, longer days, small group learning online and in person — all sound intriguing, if divorced from budget realities. Who’s going to teach the online small groups while the in-person small groups are in class? If it’s the “paraprofessional and instructional aides” mentioned on page 6, has their training begun? Parents, too, will need training to figure out how to work and support their kids at the same time, especially the youngest ones who can’t look after themselves at home or be left to learn alone online.

Results from a survey conducted by the State Department of Education earlier this month are concerning. Three school systems reported that fewer than half of their students had reliable internet access. And data on student sign-ons was inconsistent, with some systems unable to track whether students were connecting with classes online. Furthermore, sign-ons meant little. They told us nothing about whether the child participated in the activity or even stayed online for the duration of it.

Even an engagement measure — which ranged from lows of 69% for those given paper learning packets and 73% for those with online access, to highs of 99% and 94% respectively — doesn’t tell us whether kids are actually learning, just that they’re interacting with the material. They may be failing every question miserably or acing all, who knows?

And what about the lost kids, the ones not engaging in any kind of remote learning at all? One school system reported 15% of its kids hadn’t participated once; a good portion of them hadn’t even been reached. What actions are schools taking to contact those kids? Have they handed out personal protective equipment and recruited volunteers to go door to door? They have a duty to protect their employees, but those kids also have a right to an equal public education. Providing it is a school system’s entire reason for being.

The state’s education Recovery Plan is a working document, as are the plans submitted by local districts. We understand that information is still being gathered and conversations had. We also recognize the tremendous challenge school systems face in figuring out how to safely and equitably educate kids of varying ages, abilities and access to resources. But we can’t stress enough the urgency with which this should all be undertaken. Three months is nothing; that time will fly by. But the decisions made during this period have the potential to last a lifetime for the kids they effect.

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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