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Schools in Prince George’s County, hard hit by coronavirus, will stay online at least through January

Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson announced the 2020-2021 school year will begin with distance learning.
Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson announced the 2020-2021 school year will begin with distance learning. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Joining a growing national push against reopening public schools, Prince George’s County Public Schools, the second-largest school system in Maryland, will start with 100 percent remote instruction this fall and keep it in place at least through January.

With safety concerns a priority amid the surging coronavirus pandemic, Monica Goldson, the school district’s chief executive, said there is not nearly enough time to institute the safety measures needed to make on-campus learning viable.

“We could not ignore the health and safety of our students, parents and educators,” she said in an interview, pointing out that the majority-black county in the D.C. suburbs has been especially hard hit by the novel coronavirus.

The decision not to bring students back to their schools Aug. 31 was difficult but necessary given the health crisis, she said. “I think our parents will have a sense of relief,” Goldson said. “I’ve read their emails. Parents and staff.”

Prince George’s has had more cases of the coronavirus than any other jurisdiction in Maryland — more than 20,000 cases and more than 700 deaths as of Wednesday, according to state data and tracking by The Washington Post.

Recent surveys show significant support for distance education across the county. More than half of educators and administrators who responded to a June survey preferred that approach, as did 46 percent of parents.

Despite pressure and threats of lost funding from the White House, some of the nation’s largest school systems have announced plans in recent days to stick with all remote learning for now, including districts in Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Houston and elsewhere. Prince George’s, with more than 200 schools, is among the country’s 25 largest districts and one of the nation’s largest majority-black systems.

Goldson’s announcement came a day after Maryland’s two largest teachers unions and statewide parent-teacher association urged that schools not bring students back to campus in the fall. The county had made its decision before that announcement, and Goldson said the decision was based on local circumstances.

As virus worsens, Maryland teachers unions, PTA push for online learning in the fall

She said online learning would be more robust than in the spring, with a blended approach that would include prerecorded lessons and more live instruction.

Teachers will have access to their school classrooms for teaching, which she said some have expressed an interest in. Lessons would be five days a week, with breakout sessions for students with special needs and those who are English-language learners.

There will be live instruction every day, Goldson said. “That daily connection to students is key.”

Joanne Wilson, a mother of two who lives in Bowie, said her kids did not cheer the news. “They were not happy,” she said. “They miss their friends. We have not had playdates with anyone who is not family all summer.”

Still, she said, there were no good options, given the realities of the pandemic.

“I think it’s the right choice, but there’s just so many other people who this is going to harm,” she said, pointing to working parents who need child care and families that may be less skilled with technology.

Robyn Kravitz, president of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools, said Goldson’s decision was well-researched and made with good intentions.

“It is a pandemic,” she said. “We are all in this situation where there isn’t a good option. They came up with a decision that put kids first.”

Kravitz, a Forestville mother of two, said she appreciated that the distance learning would last two full quarters — enough time for planning and consistency. She expected it to become “more robust and regular” and for students and teachers to hone their abilities. The biggest concern she has heard from other parents was about how they would continue to juggle their jobs with children at home. “That’s the biggest hurdle I’ve heard about,” she said. “Not everyone can work remotely.”

Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, the county teachers union, said safety is paramount — for teachers, for children, for their families.

“We live in Prince George’s County, which has been one of the epicenters of covid in the state,” she said. Two educators have died of covid-19 in Prince George’s, she added — and “that’s not lost on us.”

Technology is also critical to the effort, in a county where more than 60 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals because of low household income.

With tens of thousands of loaner Chromebook laptops already handed out, 85,000 students were online in the spring, according to Goldson. Thousands more laptops will be distributed in coming weeks.

“We will be truly one-to-one,” Goldson said.

School officials also have more WiFi hotspots to loan to families, and Prince George’s is paying for a basic Internet package through Comcast for its students who receive free or reduced-price meals.

Covid-19 is ravaging one of the country’s wealthiest black counties

Parent support centers would be created, too, to help families with technology needs, and all schools would provide student meals, with pickup twice a week.

The move to hybrid learning would include a timeline for family decision-making. In November, schools would develop plans for arrival, dismissal, lunch and class changes — with details posted on their websites.

From Dec. 1 to Dec. 18, parents would be able to choose to continue distance learning or move to the hybrid model for the second semester. School tours would be scheduled to allow families to view the setup. On Feb. 1, the hybrid approach would begin, with two days a week on campus.

Surveys showed that an overwhelming majority of parents and staff members favored a two-days-a-week schedule, rather than every other week, for the hybrid scenario that combines at-school learning with remote learning.

The system scheduled a town hall for parents Wednesday evening and for employees Thursday evening, and will release a report next week about how it will serve students with special needs, those affected by poverty and English-language learners.

The county Board of Education is expected to review the plan and make recommendations. It also must also be reviewed by the state and posted on the school system’s website by mid-August.

Despite pressure from Trump, major districts say schools will stay closed in fall

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