County Schools Ramping Up Distance Learning Plans as Closures Extended

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School systems throughout Maryland are developing plans for remote learning after the state announced plans Wednesday to keep public schools shuttered for another four weeks.

In Montgomery County, schools will begin distributing laptops to students in need on Thursday. In the city of Baltimore, students will complete district-created learning packets next week that are being handed out at school meal sites. Beginning April 6, students in the city will be provided schoolwork based on their needs and access to technology.

State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon announced that schools would be closed through April 24 at a State House press conference with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Wednesday morning.

“We do not make this decision lightly. However, with the challenges facing our state and our country, we have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of our school communities and the communities at large,” Salmon said.

Public schools in Maryland have been closed since March 16, though the initial closure didn’t require distance learning programs, with officials stating that missed instructional days could be made up during spring breaks.

Salmon said Wednesday that the state is now working to set baseline expectations to maintain “equitable standards and expectations” while schools remain closed, but specific plans for at-home learning will be set by county boards of education.

The state Department of Education will work to provide resources to county boards and “will be diligent in providing educational services to our students with disabilities,” Salmon said.

As of Wednesday evening, at least 30 states had closed public schools through dates in April. Three states ― Kansas, Oklahoma and Virginia ― had closed schools for the rest of the academic year.

Both Salmon and Hogan cautioned on Wednesday that the closure in Maryland could be extended again.

“Obviously, we’re not going to send kids back if things are unsafe and [cases] are still climbing and people are getting infected,” Hogan said. “…Nothing is carved in stone.”

Specific distance learning plans for all Maryland counties were not immediately available on Wednesday.

Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson said the school system expects to announce distance learning plans next week. Families are being surveyed now about access to technology, with responses requested by Friday.

“We are working to ensure that PGCPS provides every resource possible to support you during this time,” Goldson wrote to families on Wednesday. “These unprecedented circumstances continue to evolve and we will continue to prioritize the wellbeing of children, families, employees and our entire community.”

As counties ramp up plans for out-of-school learning, organizations like Advocates for Children and Youth will press for protections among vulnerable school populations.

School systems should aim to make sure students’ basic needs are met first by ensuring access to food, health supports and minimizing disruptions, said Shamoyiah Gardiner, education policy director at Advocates for Children and Youth.

She is also pressing officials to prevent dropouts among vulnerable populations in high schools and on college campuses and establish policies for equitable technological and internet access for all students.

In other states, WiFi-equipped school buses have been parked in neighborhoods to provide students with internet access ― an outside-the-box approach that Gardiner hopes Maryland schools will consider as well.

She also pointed to the work of community schools in the state as examples of what can be done to support students and families. The Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, for example, has been providing community members with food, legal representation, fitness classes and other services since schools first shut down “to keep the community together, address mental health and keep peoples’ spirits up while all of this tumultuous stuff is going on,” Gardiner said.

“I’m hoping that Dr. Salmon and MSDE are really ready to jump in,” with other avant-garde ideas, she added.

Child care, meals available

On Wednesday, Salmon also announced that the state had identified more than 1,200 spaces for child care available to essential workers through YMCAs, libraries, parks and recreation facilities, and Boys and Girls clubs. The state is hoping to increase capacity to more than 2,500 spaces soon.

Essential personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic can call the state’s child care referral service at 877-261-0060.

The state continues to offer take-home meals for students at more than 500 sites throughout the state. The full list of meal sites is available at mdsummermeals.org.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.