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Turmoil as schools’ opening nears in Maryland amid Hogan’s push for in-person learning

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces that all of the state’s school systems meet safety standards to reopen for some in-person instruction during a news conference Thursday in Annapolis. Karen B. Salmon, the state’s superintendent of schools, stands on the right.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces that all of the state’s school systems meet safety standards to reopen for some in-person instruction during a news conference Thursday in Annapolis. Karen B. Salmon, the state’s superintendent of schools, stands on the right. (Brian Witte/AP)
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Days before the opening of an unprecedented school year, education in Maryland was caught up in last-minute turmoil.

The state’s 24 school systems are about to start with all-virtual instruction — plans that have been called into question after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urged school boards to get students back into classrooms for at least some in-person instruction.

Hogan’s announcement at 4 p.m. Thursday came less than four days before schools open in many parts of Maryland — and seemingly before the ink had dried on fall learning plans approved Tuesday in Montgomery County, which has the state’s largest school system.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Montgomery’s plan calls for all-virtual instruction through Jan. 29, 2021, with a hybrid approach — that would bring students on campus part-time — possible for February, as the second semester begins.

That plan was approved much later than it should have been, in the view of many parents and educators in the suburban school district.

Even so, many lamented the possibility of more changes. State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon is pushing for school systems to include at least 3½ hours of live instruction a day in their remote schedules.

“I want to make sure that all students have the same opportunities across the state for learning, and I think this is very, very critical,” she told the state board of education this week.

It is clear that not all school systems would meet the mark under that proposal; the issue is slated to come before the state board again on Tuesday.

“It’s total confusion right now,” said Cynthia Simonson, president of Montgomery’s council of PTAs.

Parents were already frustrated that it took the school board so long to approve a plan, she said. “And then the governor comes along and says the plan you’ve taken so long to approve, we think you need to go back and sharpen your pencil,” she said.

“We don’t really have clarity. We don’t understand what impact reevaluating the plan will have on families.”

School officials across Maryland issued statements after the announcement by Hogan and Salmon.

Prince George’s County said it had no plans to change course in opening remotely and would work with local officials to assess when in-person learning is safe. “We have listened to parents and our community in making decisions that prioritize our students’ needs,” said Alvin Thornton, chairman of the board of education.

Statewide organizations representing Maryland school boards and superintendents said they had pressed the state for health metrics and other guidance about reopening and been left to forge their own plans with local health officials. They said they would use guidelines issued Thursday, during Hogan’s announcement.

“While we are pleased to finally have guidance from the state, we are deeply concerned about the timing of this guidance being provided so late in the planning stages,” said a letter from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland.

Montgomery County leaders said school would begin on Aug. 31, as planned, and that they would take a close look at the new state guidelines.

Hogan pushes schools toward in-person classes

“I don’t think he understands the complexities of opening school in a pandemic,” School Board member Patricia O’Neill said of the governor. “I want schools open. A lot of what happens in school is not just reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s the socialization. It’s the connections with teachers.

“No doubt about it, virtual learning is not as satisfying,” she said. “But we have to consider health and safety first.”

Some parents took heart that the state announcement might mean that school doors open sooner, while others were upset by the timing and potential health consequences, citing other school systems around the country that opened — and had coronavirus outbreaks.

One mother said her teenager asked, “Wait, am I going to school on Monday?”

Michelle Radcliffe, a parent of two in Bethesda, found Hogan’s comments encouraging. “If it’s true that the numbers are low enough and the science is good, then we want the kids in the classroom being taught by their teachers,” she said.

She said the school system should not have decided in July to essentially close its buildings to learning until the following February. “It was too early to make that call,” she said. “It shouldn’t be set in stone. You should be able to adapt more quickly to changing circumstances.”

In Silver Spring, Margo Dickison said that while she would love her 10th-grader back in classes at Albert Einstein High School, she was furious at Hogan’s back-to-school push.

“I am terrified that covid will go out of control if kids go back to school,” she said. Case numbers have finally begun to stabilize, she said, and “everyone knows that school is a petri dish.”

Too much is at stake, she said, thinking of her 89-year-old mother and immunocompromised sister. “I’m hurt and angry and fearful,” she said.

Teachers have voiced alarm that the issue has been raised so close to the start of school — and questioned Hogan’s motives.

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

“We’re not changing our world because Larry Hogan wants to show off,” said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the county teachers union in Prince George’s, who pointed out that the Republican National Convention was heading into its final evening as Hogan spoke. “This was a political grandstand move on his part, and we’re not playing that game.”

She noted that two of her union’s members have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Hogan’s office noted that the governor has previously rejected allegations of politics being at play, saying that Democratic governors, including Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, have made similar announcements in recent weeks.

Rochelle Thompson, a mother of two school-age children who lives in Landover, in Prince George’s County, said she was screaming in disagreement at the television as Hogan spoke. She said the matter is serious and he seemed like a politician out of touch, “doing his best to appease people” in a situation with no playbook.

“He has given statistics that work great in theory, but as we’ve seen in other models of reopening plans, in practice it’s too much of a risk,” she said, pointing out that the county was an epicenter for the virus, with more cases than any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

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