State School Board Discusses Fully Reopening in Fall, Tutoring Opportunities in Summer

unsplash.com photo by Maximilian Scheffler

A month after passing a resolution directing all schools to return to in-person learning for a full 180-day school year starting in the fall, a few state school board members said they are worried that some local school systems will not comply without a stringent deadline for a plan to fully reopen.

I’m just a little bit suspicious that the behaviors that we see today may not change greatly by the fall if just left to their own, so should we be proactively asking them to come in with a plan?” Maryland Board of Education President Clarence Crawford said.

Around 400,000 students in the state have not been learning in person since March 2020, State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon said during a board meeting Tuesday.

Only half of local school systems have 60% or more of their students back in classrooms. Baltimore City, Charles County, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County school districts have under 40% of their students learning in classrooms, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

A parent from Montgomery County told board members that some students are on waiting lists for in-person instruction.

While attendance has improved, substantially more students are failing this year than in non-pandemic years. Unfortunately, failure rates have not improved between the second term and third term (approximately from January to April), according to Dara Zeehandelaar Shaw, executive director for research at MSDE.

During the second term, nine school systems had 20% of students fail middle school English, but in the third term 12 systems had 20% or more fail, Shaw noted.

“Using a crude correlation, it looked like the school systems that had higher virtual [learning] also seem to have higher numbers of failing students. …We can’t draw a real statistical correlation, but you can sort of draw an inference from that,” Crawford said.

Although the resolution is not legally binding, MSDE expects school systems to present a fully in-person calendar for the coming school year, Salmon said. Their calendars must get MSDE’s approval.

“If the resolution means anything, then let’s ask [local school systems] to tell us how they’re going to comply with the resolution… this is what we expect. It is not a survey to tell me whether you’re going to come back to school or not. What we’re interested in is what’s your plan for compliance,” Crawford said.

Shaw presented data showing that, in half of Maryland’s local school systems, fewer than 40% of students opted to remain fully virtual rather than participate in some form of in-person learning. In eight school systems, more than 50% of students opted to stay fully virtual.

“We also have a lot of families who are just still not comfortable, who are fearful, who have been hit harder by the pandemic or for whatever reason are choosing to stay virtual and I think one of our obstacles is how do we address that and make sure that schools and families have the support to feel more comfortable going back in person,” said Lori Morrow, the parent representative to the board.

Rachel McCusker, the teacher member of the board, suggested that gathering qualitative data to find out why families are opting out of in-person learning by choice is important to collect, and Morrow suggested doing a survey to collect that data.

But Salmon said it is not appropriate to take a survey asking why parents want virtual instruction.

“The board wants students to be back in person because we know primarily that that is the best way for students to learn,” Salmon said. “I just want to put that caveat out — if we get information, we’re not encouraging people to make that selection.”

Crawford said he is also apprehensive about the effectiveness of tutoring and summer school programs, which each local school system must offer under the “Kirwan 2.0” bill passed by the General Assembly this year.

“To what extent do we really know whether the local systems are actually implementing with fidelity, these proven initiatives?” he said.

Monitoring teams will ensure that school systems are implementing evidence-based tutoring programs this summer, Salmon said.

More specifically, this summer each school system must offer daily instruction in reading or math and limit the number of students assigned to each teacher. School systems also must collect data on the effectiveness of summer learning and report that to the Accountability and Implementation Board (AIB), which is responsible for holding the state and school districts accountable for implementing the sweeping education reform plan called Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

School systems may offer incentive pay for teachers and other school employees to work in summer school. And schools can pay students who are employed, or who are in career training programs, to attend summer school at the same time.

By January 2022, each school system will have to report to the AIB the number of hours of instruction provided every day, how instruction was delivered, cost of summer school programs, method the county board used to identify students with the greatest learning loss and the academic progress from summer tutoring.

Last week, the presiding officers of the General Assembly announced their appointments to the AIB Nominating Committee, and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has 30 days to announce his appointments from the time that both presiding officers make their nominations.

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