Sen. Hester: MSDE, Do More to Support Local School Districts During Pandemic

Hester
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention photo

The following is an open letter to the Maryland State Board of Education Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, President Clarence C. Crawford and Vice President Jean C. Halle:

Dr. Salmon, President Crawford and Vice President Halle,

At the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee’s June 30 public hearing I asked how the Maryland State Department of Education intended to help the local jurisdictions once their plans were submitted. While we all desperately would like all of our schools to be able to open fully, given the challenging circumstances of this pandemic, I believe the state can and should do more to support the local jurisdictions move toward this goal at a safe pace.

Specifically, in this letter there are two urgent requests relating to standards and funding calculation that require immediate action. These are followed by three areas which will undoubtedly take more time, yet are critical for ensuring safety, closing gaps and seizing the opportunity to innovate presented during this challenging time. I look forward to discussing and working with you on these matters.

First, MSDE should immediately revise its regulations and grant local school systems greater flexibility in the recent requirement for synchronous learning. Each district has unique challenges and opportunities – yet all are working significantly overtime to adapt to teaching in the “new normal.”

Rather than imposing a blanket 17.5 hours of synchronous learning, MSDE should work with each district on the plans they submitted to ensure that their specific combination of synchronous instruction, online learning and small groups meet existing MSDE standards, or provide the necessary resources to ensure that it does.

In addition, MSDE should do everything possible to help hold school systems harmless from losing funding related to decreased enrollment. For example, in Baltimore City, over 11,000 students have logged into school only once or not at all. In my district, which includes Carroll and Howard counties, public school enrollment may be down 3% causing millions of dollars’ worth of difference in budgeted projections. MSDE could work with the governor to include more funding in the budget for the local school systems than mandated by law for the upcoming year. At a time when school systems are struggling, we must do everything possible to keep their budgets intact.

Following these immediate actions, there are three areas — staying safe, closing gaps and fostering innovation — where the state can be more proactive to support the local jurisdictions. Specific actions for the state to explore in each of these areas are outlined below.

Keeping our schools safe by providing science-based metrics, issuing guidance on testing and transportation, facilitating the bulk purchasing of personal protective equipment and ensuring optimal cybersecurity.

1. Use the state’s purchasing power to achieve economies of scale and secure a reliable, steady supply of PPE. These supplies must be available prior to the start of in-person learning and throughout the entirety of the school year as the pandemic persists. California, Texas and Oklahoma supplement local supplies of PPE as their students return to school. The recent $10 million to support school reopening falls far short of the approximately $450 million necessary to reopen all Maryland schools safely (based on estimates from the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials that schools will require $486 per student to reopen schools safely).

2. Create an online dashboard to track COVID cases in the K-12 system. MSDE should partner with the Maryland Department of Health and Johns Hopkins to develop a statewide dashboard to track COVID within the K-12 system that can be used by local jurisdictions to inform responsible decision making and improve transparency. Tennessee’s dashboard allows for searches by region and school district, and New York even allows community members and local decision makers to view data broken down by public schools, charter schools, private schools, higher education institutions and state universities.

3. Set statewide guidance for school transportation. Bus routes and transportation pose a massive logistical hurdle to getting kids into the classroom safely. While the state’s reopening plan refers jurisdictions back to CDC guidelines to plan alternative bus routes as necessary (see pages 10 and 11), it does not adequately acknowledge the difficulty of actually doing so. Ideally, the Office of Pupil Transportation/Emergency Management would provide clear guidance on the number of students allowed per bus (Colorado has done this) and technical support in planning transportation routes.

4. Provide clear and detailed metrics for school openings and closings, as well as guidance for dealing with positive cases of COVID-19 in a school. For example, Minnesota recommends that local education agencies implement temporary distance learning for any classrooms, or cohorts that have been exposed in lieu of transitioning the entire school to distance learning. Minnesota provides clear guidance and specifications for transitioning between in-person, hybrid and distance learning. The Path to Zero and Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces includes interesting nuances that MSDE should consider.

5. Improve school cybersecurity. There were 348 cybersecurity incidents reported by K-12 institutions in 2019. Since July of this year, 16-plus school systems across the country have been attacked, including the Haywood County School System in North Carolina and Fairfax County in Virginia. LEAs are often some of the largest IT systems with sensitive data operated at the local level. MSDE should work closely with DOIT and MEMA to provide technical and organizational support in the short term as risk varies county by county.

Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Carroll, Howard)

6. Ensuring students have sufficient access to meals. More families in Maryland are in need of food assistance than ever before, and local jurisdictions are seeing dramatic increases in demand for free and reduced meals. MSDE should work with the Department of Agriculture and LEAs to ensure that all children can access these meals while distance learning — as some do not have transportation. In some states, school buses have been used to deliver meals.

Closing the gaps that exist across the state related to access to technology, broadband and digital educational resources; the loss of instructional time and academic progress students are experiencing.

7. Partner to close the Digital Divide. The state should pursue statewide partnerships and utilize its procurement power to fill any remaining gaps in devices or connectivity, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials Partnership Program, the K-12 Bridge to Broadband, or even local partnerships with public television stations. At a time where education and work are almost entirely reliant on reliable access to the internet, the state needs to take significant steps toward ensuring adequate access to broadband services much like we would electricity or water.

8. Make plans for bridging gaps in 2021. We know that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on minorities and those in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. The state should find ways to leverage federal dollars for statewide bridge programs that can be offered after school and for summer 2021. For example: Colorado is using CARES Act money for after school tutoring, summer school and academic intervention programs; Michigan is allowing jurisdictions to use CARES money to make up for lost instruction time; and North Carolina is using CARES money for summer learning programs.

9. Set standards for IEPs and support services for students with disabilities. Equitable standards for IEPs need to be set at the state level to ensure plans are being faithfully administered, and all students are getting the support they need. We cannot create situations where parents of students with disabilities are pitted against one another for resources and care. Where IEPs cannot be fulfilled with full fidelity remotely, state guidance should be prioritizing a transition to safe, in-person instruction. It’s particularly important that we guarantee the availability of PPE for support staff who are assisting students with severe disabilities, for whom literal “hands-on” assistance is an absolute necessity. Virginia’s plan and Massachusetts address providing in-person instruction for students with moderate to severe disabilities. New Jersey and Florida have asked for assessment of the loss of critical skills and provision of pre-school year recovery services.

10. Utilize support staff effectively. MSDE should provide guidance for the upskilling and retraining of school support staff at various levels of pandemic response. For example, bus drivers in counties where remote learning has decreased the need for transportation could be trained as technical support to assist teachers in effectively utilizing online platforms and troubleshoot issues as they arise. This would have the added benefit of expanding the skills of our support staff available even during normal times and would allow us to retain our excellent support workforce while filling short-term gaps in this rapidly changing system.

11. Provide adequate mental health and well-being support for students and staff. Teachers report significant mental health and wellness concerns related to COVID-19, both for themselves and their students. It is critically important that adequate levels of support are provided in schools. For example, Mississippi established a grant program to operate telehealth programs at schools for FY 2021. My amendment to HB1300 creating the Coordinated Community Supports Partnerships would have provided significant funding for mental and behavioral health services, as well as a community-based organizational structure to coordinate services to kids who need it.

12. Track student progress in multiple areas. If we are going to continuously improve educational opportunities for our students, we need a more robust system for tracking student metrics, evaluating program effectiveness, and informing policy decisions at the state and local level. During the 2020 session, I introduced SB 983 to establish the Maryland Data Analysis and Accountability program – which was eventually amended into HB1300, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. MSDE could start laying the groundwork for this type of data driven program evaluation process now.

Innovating on distance learning, for this pandemic and beyond as a way to improve education.

13. Embrace online learning. The state should consider a common online platform to utilize beyond the pandemic to realize the efficiency savings of an economy of scale, enable more specialized education opportunities, and supplement and support what the LEAs can offer individually. For example, Hong Kong has a one-stop shop for teaching and learning and Singapore has a Student Learning Space. Closer to home, Idaho is creating a digital campus for post-secondary students. Until we have a common platform MSDE should be assisting jurisdictions in making ongoing improvements to current systems of online learning.

14. Support professional development of teachers. Teachers have been given an enormous challenge this school year, having to adapt in-person lessons to an online medium quickly and with little guidance. MSDE could work with teachers who are excelling in this new environment to share best practices across jurisdictions and “train the trainers.” Additionally, MSDE could partner with any number of technology companies to assist teachers in improving their online teaching skills and incrementally raising online training standards (which MSDE should be setting) across the state.

15. Set online education standards. With the widespread adoption of online education at the K-12 level being a very recent development, there are still many questions remaining. What types of assessment and attendance standards work best online? Could project-based learning or performance-based assessments be implemented with more success? The answers are not necessarily clear or easy, but there is a need for some level of consistency that the state should actively be working with localities to develop and implement.

I look forward to hearing from you and learning about your current efforts and future plans in these areas. Over the next few months, I hope MSDE, the state board of education and the relevant legislative committees can collaborate to ensure the state is proactive in as many of these areas as possible.

– SEN. KATIE FRY HESTER

The writer is a Democrat representing District 9 and a member of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.