Superintendents Urge Offering Option for Fully Virtual School This Fall

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Although distance learning has been a challenge, a fully virtual option is important for families who are not comfortable sending their children back to school with the continued threat from COVID-19 in the fall, school superintendents told lawmakers Tuesday.

And about a third of Maryland’s parents have asked for online learning to continue in the fall, State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon also said during a virtual meeting of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Other officials raised questions about distance learning: Does it exacerbate existing educational inequities? Is it appropriate for rural areas that — at this point — have few cases of COVID-19?

School districts are preparing for all scenarios, from a fully virtual to a hybrid model. “We have to provide robust options for families,” Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises told senators.

Baltimore is considering a split schedule, with half the students going to school buildings for one week while the other half stays at home. Another option would be to allot one day of the week for the most vulnerable groups, such as students with disabilities and English language learners, so that they could have more time in school. Baltimore City will also have an all virtual option, Santelises said.

Transportation continues to be a challenge for Baltimore public schools, since the school district does not have its own bus fleet and depends on public transportation. Now with the pandemic, Maryland Transit Administration’s reduced hours and routes will make the school district’s already vulnerable transportation system even more difficult, Santelises said.

Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano said that his district plans to submit a final recovery plan to the state before the mid-August deadline. Howard County’s first day of school is August 25th and teachers are scheduled to arrive on August 17th.

A hybrid model in Howard County would divide classes into half, with students coming into school buildings two days a week. One day of the week would be reserved for teachers so that they have more time to plan and provide office hours for students who need additional assistance.

Hybrid model or not, bringing students into school buildings inevitably will put students at greater risk, said Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), a physician.

“In all likelihood, we could lose some students by doing so — that’s just the reality that we face,” Lam said.

There is a wide gap between what parents and educators seem to view as acceptable risks, Lam said. Last week, Fairfax County Public School teachers in Virginia revolted and said they will refuse to teach in-person until the district revises its plans to prioritize safety.

In-person learning eliminates the many challenges of distance learning, but it increases health risks. On the other hand, a fully virtual system reduces health risks, but is arguably a poorer learning experience for students.

A key component to reopening plans is figuring out how to balance the benefits and drawbacks of distance learning, Santelises said.

“There are a lot of pull and pushes and countervailing interests,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the committee’s chairman.

In the state recovery plan for education, Salmon recommended that the most vulnerable students, such as students with disabilities and English language learners, should be first to resume in-person learning. However, Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) said she is concerned that most of those students are coming from families who are already experiencing disparities.

“Those are the children we are targeting to place at risk by reentering the school system,” Washington said. “The loss of one child is not acceptable.”

There are also regional differences. Garrett County is a rural area which has had only 10 coronavirus cases so far,  Barbara Baker, superintendent of Garrett public schools, said. In Garrett County, 83% of parents said they would like to send their children back to school regardless of what stage of recovery Maryland is in. But only 40% of Garrett families said they are prepared to handle an online distance learning model.