With a new academic year starting, and local school systems wrestling with how best to educate children amid a public health crisis, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) came out this week squarely for remote instruction, urging county leaders not to give in to “pressure” to bring students back to the classroom.
In urging caution, Franchot, an announced candidate for governor in 2022, is aligning himself with the state’s powerful teachers’ unions. His views are in stark contrast with those held by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), a frequent ally.
“I happen to have very strong concerns about in-person K-thru-12 and even higher ed institutions,” Franchot said on Wednesday, during the freewheeling opening moments of the Board of Public Works’ twice-monthly meeting.
“Let’s be honest about what young people do. They get together in groups,” he added. “I just think we’re being prematurely rushed — I hope we’re not — in the face of a virus which is far from contained nationally.”
Over the last two weeks, Hogan has pushed local school systems to incorporate at least some in-person instruction into their fall calendars, saying Maryland’s COVID-19 metrics have sufficiently improved for them to do so. Some local leaders and the Maryland State Education Association said his statements would have had more value weeks earlier, when plans for the 2020-21 school year were being formulated.
And as if to buttress Franchot’s argument, the University of Maryland College Park announced this week that it was canceling all fall athletics.
Franchot didn’t accuse Hogan of applying untoward pressure, instead blaming national leaders. “I want to applaud the majority of county school boards that have chosen to heed the advice of experts and follow science, and not cave in under pressure from folks down the road in Washington who want to downplay the gravity of this disease,” he said.
Observers suggested that Franchot is positioning himself to be a contender for the coveted teachers’ union endorsement two years from now when he seeks the seat Hogan will vacate because of term limits.
“He’s got a platform and he’s trying to use it to form as much of an alliance as he can with folks he thinks he’s going to want supporting him down the road,” said former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who ran for governor in 2018.
Franchot has clashed repeatedly with Democrats in the General Assembly on a wide range of issues during his lengthy tenure as comptroller. Baker, a former state delegate, sees repair work taking place.
“The relationship between Franchot and the Democratic Party has been strained,” he said. “So now he’s looking for an opportunity to walk back some of those things or make up for it.”
Another Democrat who ran for governor suspects Franchot and his team have glimpsed polling on the ongoing debate about in-person instruction.
“He must have done polling in Montgomery, for sure, and maybe Prince George’s, where parents want their kids home,” said the Democrat, who declined to be quoted by name. “So he must have access to information — polling information and that kind of data — that totally supports what he’s saying.”
Franchot’s discourse on the perils of bringing students back to the classroom went on for several moments, as a stone-faced Hogan and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), the other members of the Board of Public Works, listened.
Franchot said any school that opens its doors now is engaging in a “huge medical experiment.”
“I would be very concerned if a family member of mine was forced to teach in-person, given the widespread existence of the virus as we head particularly into the flu season,” he said.
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the state’s largest school districts, have said it will be January at the earliest before traditional teaching resumes.
“I for one would not be personally comfortable sending my kids to school in this environment,” Franchot said. “I would wait and try to do it virtually until January when the picture will be clearer as far as what the virus’s impacts on young people is.”
Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said each county is “very much unique” and therefore entitled to make its own decisions. He believes a “hybrid” approach — a mix of in-person and virtual instruction — “is probably the best we can hope for” given the current state of the pandemic.
Because local superintendents and boards have been working with their teachers and PTAs for weeks in preparation for the start of school, Miller said it’s “way too late” for Franchot, or other state leaders, to offer meaningful advice.
“For him to opine at this point in time is as bad as what the governor did two weeks ago,” he said. “The plans are in place. School has started. And we need to move forward and let each board of education and each county move forward at its own pace.”