For nearly a year, our public school classrooms have sat empty, as the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly forced students and educators online. I offer my sincerest thanks to the teachers, paraeducators, staff and administrators who have consistently gone above and beyond to support our kids in these uncharted waters as well as our students and families for their amazing resilience amid this crisis.
Now, with vaccinations for this deadly disease finally underway, there is hope that we can soon begin to get our students back where they belong: face-to-face with their teachers after months behind a computer screen.
To help prepare for that eventual reopening, Baltimore County government partnered directly with school principals to direct $11.5 million for personal protective equipment, air purifiers, Plexiglas barriers and other materials to support a safer reopening of our schools. We have also called on state health leaders to prioritize public school educators for vaccine distribution — because teachers are essential workers.
When our students and educators return to their schools, the myriad challenges that existed a year ago will still be waiting for them: outdated buildings, severely overcrowded classrooms, and continued underinvestment and in both our children and our educators.
As a former teacher, I know we have an obligation to do better.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of Senate President Bill Ferguson, Speaker of the House — and Baltimore County’s own — Adrienne Jones, along with so many other leaders in the General Assembly, we were well on our way to doing just that.
During my first year in office, I made school construction my only legislative priority and was proud to lay the foundation for what would eventually become the Built to Learn Act — a transformative piece of legislation in which Baltimore County alone was set to receive nearly half a billion dollars to address our rapidly aging and insufficient school buildings.
During last year’s session, we built on that progress as legislators crystalized the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — developed by an esteemed panel of experts and policymakers — to provide a once-in-a-generation roadmap to ensure every child receives a world-class education, and to finally address longstanding and deeply-rooted disparities. We were on the precipice of progress. But after both bills passed the legislature with overwhelming support, Gov. Larry Hogan, with the swing of a pen, forced our kids to wait even longer.
Enough is enough. Local leaders across Maryland should be ready to stand with our state partners to recognize that our obligation to our students is more urgent than ever — this pandemic has only reinforced the need to provide modern learning environments and end disparities too long left unaddressed.
When the 2021 General Assembly is gaveled into session Wednesday, I hope that the effort to override the governor’s shortsighted veto is at the top of the list. If we don’t act now, our students will have to wait even longer for the modern classrooms they need and deserve. Our educators will have to wait even longer to be paid adequately like the professionals they are. And our youngest learners will have to wait even longer for the expanded access to pre-K that is so critical for closing achievement gaps and setting our students up for a lifetime of success.
After everything our families have been through amid the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges of virtual learning, it’s up to us to build a bridge to a better future for them. These actions are needed because we are not only in the midst of a public health emergency, but an economic one.
Investing in education, especially in difficult times like these, is one of the best ways to ensure Maryland quickly recovers from this crisis — and is better prepared for the next.
Not only will the Built to Learn Act provide students with the schools they deserve, but it would set a process in motion to create thousands of good-paying jobs across the state at a time marked by skyrocketing unemployment claims and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program applications.
While there is still economic uncertainty ahead, we can move forward thanks to leaders in Annapolis who wisely created fiscal safeguards in the Blueprint to ensure Maryland can quickly, but responsibly, implement these important reforms.
In just a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our entire way of life and so many of our neighbors have suffered. Looking back, we must recognize how much of a burden our children have been forced to bear. Now, as we begin this new year, we have an opportunity to finally meet our shared obligation to provide for those who have persevered through so much.
The beginning of this unprecedented legislative session will mark our third attempt to ensure an essential and long-overdue investment in our students, our educators and our communities. The third time must be the charm to get the job done. Our kids have waited long enough.
— JOHN A. “JOHNNY O” OLSZEWSKI JR.
The writer, a former Baltimore County public school teacher, is the Baltimore County executive.