What’s the Deal with Maryland Schools?

As the state starts to reopen, many are wondering what will happen with public schools in the fall. Here, Conduit Street breaks down the process ahead, including the federal, state, and local roles in reopening schools, and possible paths forward.

The swift and sudden shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our healthcare system, economy, social structures, and everyday way of life. Schools are no exception. Across Maryland, local education agencies (LEAs) are formulating plans to educate students in the fall  — whether in person, remotely, or some combination of the two — with an emphasis on ensuring the safety and well-being of students, families, staff, faculty, and school communities.

How Did We Get Here?

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and state of emergency declared by Governor Larry Hogan, Maryland schools have been closed since March 16, 2020.

The following timeline provides some background information on major education-related events in Maryland during the pandemic:

  • March 12, 2020: Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Karen Salmon, announced the closure of all public schools from March 16 – March 27, 2020, along with the cancellation of all travel for students and staff.
  • March 16, 2020: The Office of School and Community Nutrition at Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), alongside food directors from local school systems, began serving meals to students at sites throughout the State as an expansion of the summer meal program.
  • March 26, 2020: Superintendent Salmon announced the extension of school closures until April 24, and the indefinite closure of child care facilities not serving essential personnel.
  • April 17, 2020: Superintendent Salmon announced the extension of school closures until May 15, 2020.
  • May 6, 2020: Superintendent Salmon announced the extension of school closures through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

Is There Federal Guidance for Reopening Schools in the Fall?

The decision to reopen schools — like the decision to close them in March — does not rest with the federal government. Rather, it will be made by Maryland’s 24 local LEAs, in collaboration with state and local health officials and guidance from MSDE.

In mid-May, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended a set of social distancing policies for schools including having desks at least six feet apart and facing the same direction, lunch in classrooms, staggered arrival times, cloth masks for staff, and daily temperature screenings.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy Devos this week criticized the CDC guidelines and threatened to withhold funding for schools if they do not offer in-person classes in the fall. While is it unclear whether President Trump has the authority to withhold such funding, Governor Larry Hogan replied that Maryland would not be taking “any bullying” and the state will “make the best decisions that we can based on the science and what the educators and the public health officials say.”

Hours after Trump’s statement, Vice President Mike Pence contradicted the president saying that he would respect local decisions to not fully reopen schools due to the pandemic.

What is the State’s Role in Reopening Schools?

While the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) continues to update the state’s recovery plan for education, “Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education,” local school systems will be responsible for establishing their own recovery plans in accordance with state guidelines.

As Maryland moved into Stage 2 of the “Roadmap to Recovery,” the state eased restrictions on access to school buildings. Superintendent Salmon said that students and staff should be allowed to return to school buildings in small groups for summer school programming, with a focus on students most deeply impacted by the pandemic-induced shift to remote learning. Although the plan for students to return for in-person learning is technically in Stage 3 of Maryland’s recovery plan, the exact timing is still uncertain as each stage is based on pandemic data.

What Are Local School Systems Saying?

Some jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City, have said they are considering educating students both in-person and virtually, on an alternating schedule, but also plan to offer a virtual option for families who are not comfortable with in-person learning. Many superintendents plan to finalize school reopening plans by early August, although several have already stated that if there is not a surge in the virus, students will likely have a rotating schedule of in-person classes.

Many aspects of reopening schools have drawn concern from stakeholders, including extra transportation costs in order to physically distance students on buses, personal protective equipment in classrooms, student achievement gaps due to distance learning, and what to do with students on “off” days when childcare may be necessary.

While there has been much talk on access to child care for parents returning to work, a bigger discussion is looming on what to do with a possible increase of thousands of students if class sizes are cut in half in order to continue with physical distancing.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more information.

Useful links:

CDC’s Social Distancing Policies for Schools

MSDE’s Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education

Maryland’s Roadmap to Recovery