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Maryland’s governor shoots a spitball, picks an unnecessary fight over school reopening | COMMENTARY

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces that all of the state's school systems meet safety standards to reopen for some in-person instruction during a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020 in Annapolis even as K-12 schools move forward with online-only instruction at the start of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Karen Salmon, the state's superintendent of schools, is standing right. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces that all of the state's school systems meet safety standards to reopen for some in-person instruction during a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020 in Annapolis even as K-12 schools move forward with online-only instruction at the start of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Karen Salmon, the state's superintendent of schools, is standing right. (AP Photo/Brian Witte) (Brianrt Witte/AP)

Here’s how we might assess Larry Hogan’s summer school performance: “Does not work or play well with others.” His high absenteeism and incomplete homework this summer, when local superintendents were struggling to develop plans for how to handle returning students this fall, deserves a failing grade.

The governor took to the podium Thursday to strongly encourage (although it felt more like castigate) Maryland’s 24 school districts to get back to in-person instruction. He, along with Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, even handed out some newly-created bench marks about how to accomplish that. The timing was, to put it mildly, curious. School districts throughout the state are set to begin classes within the next 10 days, some as early as Monday. Every school system has been working on this very issue for months, and though they’d all like to resume in-person classes, they decided the time was not yet right to do it safely. Every single district determined that beginning virtually was in the best interest of students, of educators, of families and surrounding communities. These are tough calls.

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Now, some might be inclined to think, well, Governor Hogan was reacting to the latest data. Maryland’s COVID-19 numbers are improving. But this is the same governor who, when superintendents were asking for more firm directives on this very point weeks ago, had little to say — aside from issuing an executive order preventing local health officers from keeping private schools closed. Second-guessing local authority appears to be the governor’s preferred method. The numbers did not change suddenly overnight. This advice would have been a whole lot more useful weeks ago.

In reality, school systems are in unknown territory and fully aware of the awful choices. Distance learning shortchanges low-income and special needs students. In-person instruction raises the possibility that kindergarten becomes a super-spreading event with the coronavirus a surprise take-home for their families. Child care, transportation, teacher safety, unrecognized child abuse at home, the list of challenges is long and complex. Mr. Hogan would have people believe systems just want to play hooky as if online instruction was the easy choice. If so, he ought to chat with teachers even now working hard to translate their courses into digestible bytes. They recall earlier talk from the State House about how everyone was in this crisis together. And their union leaders are howling. So are some top Democrats. Cheryl Bost of the Maryland State Education Association called the governor’s “ambush” announcement a “a recipe for chaos, confusion, distrust, and deepening the inequities that too many of our students face.”

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Indeed, it’s not hard to see a political angle here. No matter how schools proceed, whether they stay online or move to a hybrid model or bring students back entirely, some people are going to be unhappy. How fortuitous to be the critic and not bear the burden of accountability. Or, to use a classroom example, to be the wise guy in the back row shooting spitballs instead of the person in front of the class trying to manage the tumult. This would be ideal for a Republican governor thinking about running for national office. There’s little personal political downside even if the worst happens. Antagonizing teachers’ unions is like catnip for GOP voters. Anyone fit that description? Bueller? Bueller? That extra $10 million the governor is dangling to help school systems bring back in-person instruction is a nice touch amounting to about $11 per student. Maybe they can buy everyone a thumb drive for that, but not much more.

Instead of complaining about local districts, the governor should be reaching out to them, listening and learning about their individual challenges, taking actions to help their circumstances. This is leadership. Some of the governor’s beefs are legitimate. Of course, schools should have plans already in place to reopen if circumstances warrant. But taking potshots is the wrong way to manage a crisis. We don’t think local school systems lack the will for in-person instruction, in many cases, they simply lack the way to do it safely. Trying to embarrass them publicly with last-minute obduration doesn’t help.

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

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