Teachers’ Unions, Parents Urge State to Begin School Year Virtually

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association

Maryland teachers’ unions and the state PTA are calling on the state to begin the school year fully online.

The Maryland State Education Association, Baltimore Teachers Union and Maryland PTA penned a joint letter to state officials on Tuesday, asking for the upcoming school year to start with virtual learning for at least the first semester.

A fully online model for fall would give school districts at least six weeks to better understand and improve distance learning, Cheryl Bost, MSEA president, said in a virtual news conference.

The sudden school closures in mid-March, to stop spread of the novel coronavirus, shined a lot of light on inequities in the school system, she said. Some of these issues have not been resolved.

Focusing on just one model would also make it easier to concentrate resources, address inequities of the digital divide, and be better prepared in the event of another emergency lockdown during the school year, the organizations said in the letter.

“We cannot fall into any hybrid model when we still do not have the answers to rectify the deficiencies we have for too many students,” Bost said in an interview with Maryland Matters.

School districts need to spend all their time and resources to ensure that all students can be reached by virtual learning, Bost said. “Until that day, we are still leaving too many students behind.”

In their letter the groups suggested that school systems focus their resources on getting computers to every student who needs one and on increasing internet access to students and teachers who lack it at home.

Returning to remote learning in the fall is the most responsible decision, Bost said.

She cited an analysis that found that 24% of all teachers are at a greater risk of serious illness if infected with the virus.

As school districts draft reopening plans, a divide among parents and teachers has become more apparent. Some parents oppose face masks and want schools to reopen, for in-person learning, in the fall, arguing that children have lower transmission and death rates from COVID-19.

“Not only does that completely ignore the adults in schools who undoubtedly have a higher rate of transmission and death, but it also presupposes that there are a number of deaths of students or educators that are acceptable,” Bost said. “There are not.”

Other parents and teachers support a more cautious plan, advocating for social distancing, frequent cleaning of buildings or an all-virtual curriculum.

Hybrid learning has been the most popular model for many school districts, but it would require levels of funding “that are not even being contemplated and are impossible to imagine being available for the start of the coming school year,” the organizations said in their letter.

Maryland teachers prefer in-person teaching and are worried that virtual learning will compromise their jobs, Diamonte Brown, the president of Baltimore Teachers Union, said in the virtual news conference.

“But we also prefer our lives over everything,” Brown said. “We prefer our students’ lives over convenience. It is more convenient to teach in person. However, it is not right now the safest way…this is not a selfish act, this is a selfless act because we are afraid too.”

Brown also highlighted that wealthier school districts, such as Montgomery and Howard counties, have decided to reopen virtually first, while school districts with predominantly Black and Brown students have been looser with health safeguards.

Baltimore City has predominantly Black students, poorer quality school buildings and a history of underfunding, Brown said. Students in the city also rely on public transportation to get to school, which poses an additional risk not only to students, but to bus drivers and essential workers who also use public transport.

Bringing people together in unreliably ventilated indoor spaces for hours on end, as well as the challenge of making sure that all students are wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, are among major health risks posed if schools return to in-person learning this fall, the groups said. Some school buildings in Baltimore City do not have air conditioning or adequate ventilation.

Bost hopes that the collaborative statement to state officials will have an impact in school reopening discussions at local district levels, as well as motivate Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and state Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon to come out with a state position and advise all districts to start with virtual learning.

Last week, a summer camp for kindergarten and early elementary school age children in Missouri was forced to shut down, after at least 82 campers and counselors tested positive for coronavirus. More than 300 children in Texas day care centers are reported to have been infected with coronavirus.

“The only reason that schools are not on the list of places where our children have gotten the coronavirus is because we closed them,” said Edna Harvin Battle, president of Maryland PTA, in the news conference. “Let’s not roll the dice in late August or September.”