What Might Schools Look Like Next Fall?

Protective films around bus drivers, temperature checks at schoolhouse doors, playgrounds marked with social distancing markers.

Those are just a few examples of what might become the “new normal” at Maryland public schools, if they’re reopened next fall.

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon announced Wednesday that schools would remain shuttered for the rest of this school year. At the same time, she announced that the State Department of Education has published “Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education,” which included the recommendations above — and much more.

With Maryland’s announcement, schools in 48 states will remain closed for the rest of this academic year. Distance learning in Maryland will continue through the end of the fourth marking period, Salmon said.

Come next fall, “schedules for instruction, meals and transportation may all require modifications,” Salmon said at a State House press conference. “Any return of students and staff to the classroom depends on the circumstances in each school system and local school systems will have the flexibility to adapt the model to best serve their needs.”

The recovery plan released on Wednesday includes suggestions, but not requirements, for school districts to consider. Day-to-day operations in all schools are likely to change to follow public health guidance.

Other precautions that may be necessary include reconfigured classrooms with desks six feet apart, or physically distanced instruction in gymnasiums, auditoriums or out on the lawn.

Suggestions in the report for modifying school schedules to reduce the number of students physically present in schools include:

  • A one-day rotation, in which a quarter of students return to school buildings one day a week.
  • A two-day rotation in which all students receive two days of at-school instruction each week.
  • A and B weeks, where half of all students go to the school building for four days in a row, and learn from home the following week.

Because research shows that younger students have more difficulty processing lessons during online learning, school systems may also consider bringing younger students back on to campuses earlier than older students.

Based on research that shows a more significant “summer slide,” or learning loss, in math, school systems might consider prioritizing in-person instruction for that subject next fall over, say, English language arts, an area where more parents may be prepared to help with at-home lessons.

Schools might also consider “looping” teachers ― or keeping them with the same set of students ― next school year, which would take advantage of teachers’ familiarity with students and families during an uncertain time. Access to school counselors and school-based health clinics should be beefed up, and schools should begin planning to help staff members identify childhood reactions to stress and trauma, or to identify abuse or neglect.

Students learning English or enrolled in special education programs should be prioritized for in-person small-group instruction with student-teacher ratios of 10 or less.

The report says that fall diagnostic assessments for elementary and middle school students will be given at the start of next school year as planned, with results going to teachers within two days to help guide instruction.

If remote learning must continue, school systems should consider implementing low-cost methods of online instruction that can be accessed on the widest variety of technological platforms, including mobile phones. School systems may need to consider increasing information technology staff to help bolster distance-learning programs.

School systems should also consider ways to extend the quality and coverage of internet access in their counties; about 30% of families in Maryland do not have a reliable internet connection for distance learning, according to the report.

The report suggests additional changes and safeguards for students in career and technical education programs, including making sure students have access to work-based learning hours that follow public health guidelines, disinfecting student labs and creating a compressed curriculum that will allow students to graduate on time with their expected certifications.

Schools will have to change lunch and food service policies to allow for physical distancing, increased sanitation and other issues, including how to distribute meals with altered school day schedules. Since schools in the state were closed in mid-March, school systems have served more than 8 million meals to children in need, Salmon said Wednesday.

The report suggests that each school district should create a crisis team to implement local reopening plans and communicate with the public.

A separate “Child Care Recovery Plan” is in the works. About half of the child care programs in the state have been closed since late March, with about 3,700 providers remaining open to serve a small population of children of essential workers. A roll-out of the state-funded Essential Personnel Child Care Program was rocky, with providers going weeks without payment. But Salmon said Wednesday that the state has made more than $34 million in payments over the past two weeks, with all invoices to providers up to date.

The recovery plan for public schools will be updated as information changes, Salmon said Wednesday.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association and a Baltimore County elementary school teacher, said Wednesday that closing schools for the year was the right decision for health and safety, but called it a sad day.

“Educators miss our students. We wish we could see them, talk with them, laugh with them, and teach them in person. We wish we could say goodbye to them before the school year ends,” Bost said in a statement. “Instead, educators, families, and students will continue to do our best during this period of crisis distance learning, while knowing that we have a great deal of work to do now and moving forward. We must address the inequities within our community—whether of technology access for educators and students, food security, trauma care, or otherwise—that have been magnified by this crisis. We look forward to the day that we can return to our schools and the everyday joys, challenges, and work of educating our students.”

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines covered government and politics for Maryland Matters for two years before moving into an editing position. 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.