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COVID-19 in Maryland Education

State Ed. Board Mandates Average of 3.5 Hours of Live Learning a Day by Year’s End

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon, with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) behind her. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The Maryland State Board of Education Tuesday approved a measure to require all school systems to have an average of 3.5 hours a day of live virtual learning by the end of 2020.

State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon emphasized that this standard is to ensure equity and consistency for all students across the state, especially those in school districts that were “planning last minute to go virtual for a whole half of the school year, which is 90 days,” she said.

The board also asked school systems that have indicated that they were not returning students to in-person learning until the second half of the school year to reevaluate their reopening plans by the end of the first quarter — or after nine weeks — and to submit their new plans to the Maryland State Department of Education.

Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the two largest school districts in the state, have announced that they are remaining virtual for most of the first semester.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) applauded MSDE for its decision.

“I want to thank the State Board of Education for their vote today, which calls on those counties to at least go back and reevaluate their modes of instruction before the end of the year,” he said during a late afternoon news conference Tuesday.

Late last week, Hogan announced that every local school system is allowed to begin safely reopening their buildings for in-person learning due to low COVID-19 case numbers. He urged the eight districts that planned to remain virtual for most of the first semester to reconsider their plans to include for at least some face-to-face learning.

Many local school boards, elected officials and the teachers’ union pushed back last week, saying that local schools were not given enough time to change their schedule to meet these newly established standards, especially with only a week left before the first day of school.

“I’m still really disappointed in the timing and manner at which this has played out,” Lori Morrow of Prince George’s County, the parent member of the state school board, said during Tuesday’s board meeting. The board only received these new recommendations Friday evening and the presentation slides were not posted publicly to MSDE’s website until Saturday morning, she said.

In response, the state board revised the requirement to an average of 3.5 hours of synchronous learning across all grades (K through 12) every day, instead of a minimum, to give schools more flexibility. Half-day pre-K school days must include a minimum of 1.5 hours of live learning spread out over the half day, according to the new regulations.

A school district can offer more hours of synchronous learning one day and less on other days, as long as the average is 3.5 hours, school board member Gail H. Bates said.

The deadline to meet these standards was deferred to the end of the calendar year, instead of the end of this month.

The Maryland State Education Association hailed the more than 20,000 Marylanders who signed an online petition in recent days that called for no mandated schedule changes until after the first quarter of the school year.

“We appreciate that the State Board of Education rejected Superintendent Salmon’s last-minute proposal to rip up local school schedules in a matter of weeks without thought for the confusion, stress, and chaos that would ensue,” Cheryl Bost, the president of Maryland State Education Association, said in a statement during the board meeting.

This conversation would have been useful months earlier, Bost said. “The poor communication and sudden changes coming from the State Department of Education and state leadership are deeply concerning and in dire need of improvement.”

School superintendents similarly expressed their frustration with the late timing of these new standards.

“These untimely requirements after our plans have been approved are a powerful departure from the traditional cooperation between the LEAs (local education agency) and the Board. These recommendations are rigid, lack basis in any specific academic research, and are extremely severe in what to date, has been a partnership during this crisis,” Kelly Griffith, the president of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, wrote Monday in a letter to Salmon and Clarence Crawford, the president of the state Board of Education.

Superintendents said they appreciate statewide standards and the goal to ensure equity, but believe these decisions should have been made collaboratively with local superintendents, Griffith continued.

‘You can’t have a blanket number for all students’

Some educators doubt that mandating a set amount of live learning would achieve more equity.

There are hundreds of students who do not have resources at home where they can sit quietly and log on for class, Kevin Shindel, a social studies teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said in an interview. Children of working class families, who cannot help younger children as much, will especially will be at a disadvantage

“That’s [mandated average of 3.5 hours of live learning], not equality, it actually further diminishes their capacity to keep up,” Shindel said.

Rose Li, a school board member from Montgomery County, asked multiple times how Salmon decided on 3.5 hours as the optimal synchronous learning allotment. If the requirement was 3 hours rather than 3.5 hours, 16 of the 24 districts would not need to change their schedules, Li said.

“We believe an average of 3.5 hours of synchronous instruction daily across all grades allows students to remain connected to their teachers and is the best solution for replicating a level of beneficial interaction in a physical classroom with the synchronous time spread out throughout the day more like a real instructional situation when not virtual,” said Lora Rakowski, a spokeswoman for MSDE.

Henry Smith, an assistant professor at John Hopkins School of Education, said he thinks these new standards are not going to help anyone except the school board and superintendents to use as metrics and to be able to record the total hours of live learning they have offered to students.

“You can’t have a blanket number for all children,” he said in an interview. “Especially younger students, special needs students and ESL students cannot have the same metric as a high school student whose first language is English.”

Having a qualitative metric, instead of a quantitative one, that thoroughly assess the quality of synchronous learning, no matter how long they are, would be much more effective, he said.

“The debates about the amount of time of synchronous learning are so off target from what we should be talking about,” Shindel said. “If you really wanted to enhance student engagement, you have to give teachers training and time to plan, not just make them put students in a Zoom [meeting] more often.”

“Quantity is not the same as the quality of instruction.”

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