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Maryland should stick with virtual learning - for now | COMMENTARY

Online learning can be a struggle for students, families and educators alike but keeping classes virtual for the next two months statewide could prove helpful for all involved, the head of Maryland's largest teachers union has argued.
Online learning can be a struggle for students, families and educators alike but keeping classes virtual for the next two months statewide could prove helpful for all involved, the head of Maryland's largest teachers union has argued. (Dreamstime)

You don’t have to be Judith Viorst, her fictional character of Alexander Cooper or even the average public school parent to recognize that 2020 has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown K-12 educational into chaos with some local systems electing to attempt in-person instruction, some going all-virtual, others pursuing hybrid models and most all stopping and starting, changing directions and rejiggering plans almost one week to the next. It’s enough to make grown-ups trying to balance work, family and their children’s’ educations stand on the nearest corner and howl at the moon. And if you think it’s been bad for caregivers, try dealing with this as a teacher where you’ve been asked to approach learning in an entirely different way — and then perhaps asked to try another way. And then maybe to do those two things simultaneously. And who knows what will be asked next week or the week after that.

Let’s take a moment to catch our collective breath. That level of frustration over the fits and starts along with the worrisome numbers on the pandemic are evident in the letter dispatched Nov. 24 from the president of the Maryland State Education Association, the largest union representing teachers to Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon. MSEA’s Cheryl Bost asked Superintendent Salmon to direct the state’s 24 public school systems to commit to all-virtual learning from now through the end of the semester. That isn’t really that long a period of time, but it would get parents and schools in a predictable schedule through the holidays and much of January. The timing may prove especially fortuitous given the recent upsurge in COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations. By January, that trend may reverse and the various vaccines, assuming they are approved, may change the outlook substantially.

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This is hardly the ideal solution, of course, more like a best-of-bad choice. That’s what the pandemic has wrought over and over again — difficult choices that still need to be made that usually involve balancing risks to the well-being of community at large and also specific individuals and groups. Superintendent Salmon has often been reluctant to impose her will on local school systems but this is not the time for hesitancy or irresolution. Nor has any portion of the state been spared by the pandemic. This is not just a Central Maryland problem, nor a rural problem, not just felt by Democrats or Republicans, it’s a problem everywhere. Some parents won’t like the loss of any form of in-person instruction. Some critics will no doubt perceive it as unnecessary, others as a sop to a powerful union. To those, we would ask only that they consult their local teachers and they’ll soon discover just how destructive this back-and-forth, off-and-on has been to education’s front line personnel. As Ms. Best writes, it’s been a “roller coaster” for all involved and “put simply, it’s been exhausting.”

Make no mistake, virtual learning is no vacation for teachers. For many, it’s the more difficult choice. And last Wednesday’s ransomware attack on Baltimore County Public Schools that shut down all online learning is surely a cautionary tale (as if the struggles of low-income families lacking internet connections and technical expertise wasn’t already a major concern). But even as county students got an unexpected reprieve from their electronic devices, the pandemic’s worrisome numbers raged on around them: Hospitalizations across the state have quadrupled since October, the positivity rate is over 6%, and the death toll (an average 21 souls per day) is more than twice the rate of the previous three months. As Ms. Bost explains, teachers lie awake at night not only in fear that online instruction is shortchanging students, they worry that in-person attendance puts too many people, students included, at risk.

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Certainty and calm. That’s what Superintendent Salmon can provide educators with a statewide mandate. Teachers and students will be forced to soldier on in this less-than-ideal format resulting, in many cases, a less-than-normal education. But there aren’t any options on the table where a normal education is possible. That’s what happens when you are dealing with a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad circumstance. The fictional Alexander had gum in his hair, is scolded, gets soap in his eyes, forgets the number 16 and on and on. Lucky for him, it only lasted a day. Maryland teachers will tell future generations about how their bad day lasted a year or more. In real life. And with fitful leadership. “We’ve done our best in circumstances we would not wish upon anyone,” Ms. Bost writes. It’s time their frustrated voices were heard.

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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