Hogan Declares Schools Should Reopen by March, As Lawmakers Debate How To Address Learning Loss

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) held a press conference Thursday urging schools to reopen to at least some in-person instruction by March. Photo from The Executive Office of the Governor.

Governor Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon urged local school systems to begin hybrid in-person learning by March 1.

“There is no public health reason for school boards to be keeping students out of schools. None. This really isn’t controversial,” Hogan said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

“It is abundantly clear that the toll of keeping students out of school far exceeds any potential risk of having students in school where they belong,” he continued.

As of now, ten out of Maryland’s 24 local school systems are offering in-person learning in small groups, while Carroll County is the only district providing hybrid instruction to all students.

Hogan repeatedly referenced President Joe Biden’s reopening policy, who has pledged to reopen most K-12 schools for in-person classes within a hundred days of his inauguration. Hogan said he spoke with Biden and the head of the new administration’s coronavirus task force and is on the same page with them about school reopening.

State leaders unveiled new school reopening guidelines, which include two options:

  • Daily in-person learning for students who have special learning needs or are in career technology programs; and daily in-person learning or hybrid learning for elementary and secondary students, if proper health and safety requirements are possible.
  • Daily in-person learning for students who have special needs, hybrid learning for elementary students and remote learning or a phased-in hybrid learning for secondary students.

Local school systems should have a plan that includes hybrid learning by March 1, Salmon said. The governor and state superintendent also sent a letter to the teacher unions, citing growing support for in-person learning.

This is the first letter that the Maryland State Education Association has ever received from the governor, said Cheryl Bost, president of MSEA. While the teacher’s union has been working collaboratively with local superintendents, “the only information that we get from the state superintendent and the governor is from press conferences,” she said in an interview with Maryland Matters.

Although Hogan cannot command local school systems to reopen, he said he would “explore every legal avenue at our disposal.”

“I want to make it perfectly clear: I will do everything I possibly can do within the law to push to get all of Maryland’s children back into the classrooms,” he continued. He mentioned how Chicago cut pay from teachers who refused to teach in person and that South Carolina threatened to revoke teachers’ licenses. “We do not want to have to take such actions here in Maryland,” he said.

Some lawmakers lambasted Hogan for his choice of words. “Threatening schools to put forth ‘a good faith effort’ or face potential consequences is not the leadership our wary teachers and families need,” Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), said in a statement.

Only 25% of Baltimore City schools have upgraded HVAC systems, Washington said. “We must first implement the proper safety precautions before bringing our students and faculty back, not install them as we go, or realize they are too insufficient as the disease spreads,” she continued.

House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) called the governor’s statements “bullying.”

At the same time, leading state Republicans commended the governor for his urgency.

“I applaud the Governor’s call on Maryland’s schools to reopen to in-person learning by March 1,” House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (Anne Arundel) said in a statement. “There are school systems all over the world have opened safely. Maryland has prioritized teachers and education staff to receive COVID-19 vaccines. The safety infrastructure is in place and it is time to open schools.”

“Many parents have struggled to meet the educational needs of their children during this pandemic. Students have battled a myriad of obstacles and many have fallen behind. It is hard to say how long it will take our students to recover from the lapses in their education, they must return to in-person learning as soon as possible,” House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (Baltimore County) said in a statement.

Hogan’s announcement comes one day after Maryland lawmakers and education leaders convened virtually to discuss how to combat the learning loss that many students have faced this past year, possibly requiring additional tutoring, summer school and extended year programs.

Baltimore City Public Schools found that more than half of students failed at least one course in their first quarter and 60% of students in grades 9 through 10 have at least one failing grade, Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s County Public Schools found a large learning gap in mathematics but no major decline in language arts, said CEO Monica Goldson.

The Maryland State Department of Education recently allocated an additional $781 million from the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act to local schools to help address learning loss and implement summer learning programs, Salmon said Wednesday.

In addition, Hogan’s fiscal 2022 budget includes $150 million from the Blueprint fund for tutoring and supplemental instruction to relieve learning loss. In total, Hogan has allocated $7.5 billion for K-12 education in the budget, he said during the press conference. This funding will not be available until July 1, 2021.

However, the money in the budget is intended for normal operations, Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chair of the committee, said.

“We’re talking about dealing with the learning loss unique to the pandemic, and I’m not sure the existing foundation formula and all the other money to the jurisdiction is going to give that special impetus, almost like an educational Marshall Plan, to recoup what we’ve lost these 12 months,” he continued.

The federal money that was recently distributed is significant, Salmon countered. “It’s four times the amount of money that [local school systems] received initially. It’s a lot…and we hope that we’re going to see another package come along.” Local school systems can also use their remaining CARES Act Funding, which ranged from $4 million to $200 million for each school system, Salmon said.

But the federal stimulus funding is still not enough, local superintendents contended. The cost for one day of an extended school year for Prince George’s County’s 134,000 students is $5.67 million, Goldson said. And revamping old school buildings with compatible air purifiers to ensure safety is also another cost to consider.

“I think there’s going to be a day of reckoning between investments in actual new school learning spaces and the needs that the pandemic has predicted,” Santelises said. There is a $40-50 million gap to address Baltimore City’s old school buildings, Santelises said.

Hogan announced an additional $151 million for targeted tutoring grants and $833 million in additional school construction funding as part of his budget proposal.

During Wednesday’s briefing, teachers unions opposed using standardized assessments as a way to target students who needed the most help from learning loss. Rather, a combination of absences, personalized assessment testing and input from teachers who are with students every day should be used to target students who require the most assistance, Bost said.

Standardized assessments would be futile because “those students don’t take assessments,” said Diamonté Brown, the president of Baltimore Teachers Union. “The way you get that student is offering summer programming as dual employment and if you put it out there that you’re paying them to come to summer school, I promise you the right students, at least in Baltimore City, they’ll come.”

Still Unclear Reopening Metrics  

As Hogan moved the state forward with his vaccination plan to include teachers earlier this month, some local school systems have begun rolling out vaccinations to educators and school staff. For instance, Baltimore City began vaccinating teachers on Tuesday in partnership with John Hopkins medicine, while Prince George’s school system will have vaccinated 60% of its staff by the end of this week, Goldman said. Other counties have not yet begun vaccinating teachers, based on limited vaccine doses.

However, the availability of vaccines for teachers should not preclude reopening, but could be used to create a more comfortable learning environment for teachers, Salmon said Thursday.

Bost, president of MSEA, said it was confusing to see the governor prioritize teachers for vaccinations and then suggest that teachers did not need it to go back into classrooms. “That’s not building any trust with our educators,” she told Maryland Matters.

Lawmakers pushed for more clarity on reopening metrics and standardization. During the early days of the pandemic, MSDE and the health department set a 5% positivity rate as the threshold for in-person instruction. However, that metric is no longer the best predictor, Salmon said.

“Now you’re agreeing with that contention, that positivity rates shouldn’t be viewed in solo, it should be viewed as part of one metric, which is very different than the message that we’ve been hearing in press conferences for the last 6, 7, 8 months,” Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Baltimore and Howard counties) said Wednesday.

Positivity rates was one of the metrics MSDE looked at early on, but knowledge on the virus is always evolving , Salmon contended. “There’s no research studies to support [metrics], so what we have to do is to look at what is the impact of applying these metrics on what happens with being able to open or close things,” she said.

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