On August 27, Governor Larry Hogan and the State school Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon held a surprise press conference encouraging all Maryland public schools, most of which had scheduled virtual learning for at least the first semester; some with plans to begin hybrid learning this fall, to reconsider their mode of instruction at the end of the first quarter, offering 10 million of federally received CARES act funding to systems that are able to move towards in-person instruction.
“There is broad and overwhelming agreement among public health leaders, education experts and parents that finding a way to begin safely returning children to classrooms must be a top priority,” Hogan said
“As a result of our improved health metrics, every single county school system in the State of Maryland is now fully authorized to begin safely reopening,” the Governor said. “Nearly everyone agrees that there is no substitute for in-person instruction. It is essential that we all work together on flexible hybrid plans to safely get some of our kids back into classrooms and into healthy and supportive learning environments.” Hogan went on to say that both parents and education experts agree that “finding a way to begin safely returning children to classrooms must be a top priority.”
This emboldened stance came after a summer of silence and mixed messages from the Hogan administration – who attempted to cut education by $110 million this July – and less than 2 weeks before most public schools planned to reopen.
Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, says educators had been asking for reopening metrics from the state since June and believes Hogan’s announcement was chastising systems that did not include plans for in-person learning by the end of the calendar year.
“What the districts were looking for is some statewide baseline item, health metrics,” Bost said,
“Everybody was asking for some of those early in the summer, not to come out in August.”
Bost found Hogan’s remarks to be disheartening and discouraging to the state’s educators, who spent an unprecedented summer preparing for remote learning and were now being told days before instituting their plans to reevaluate their hard work. Bost also believes Hogan failed to prioritize investment early on in comparison to other reopening strategies, saying the administration has spent its money on rapid tests and converting spaces into hospitals while not investing in proper PPE for students and faculty.
“He bought the rapid testing, he turned the convention center into an auxiliary hospital. You haven’t seen that type of activity or investment or prioritization from the governor to help schools open,” Bost stated.
“He’s told them what he wants and that’s varied over the summer, but no assistance in doing so all of the money that he has”
While she notes that students, parents, and educators alike want to be in-person, Bost believes Maryland’s best bet is to ease into in-person learning and to get virtual right in case there is a resurgence and schools are forced to go fully remote.
“We want this to be a seamless education for our students this year. So if it’s virtually bringing some students in, in a hybrid, if the cases start to increase and we go to virtual, it should not be a disruption in education cause we’ve gotten it right.”
Meanwhile, as public schools continue to scramble to meet new reopening metrics, the Archdiocese of Baltimore (who enrolls over 25,000 students across 64 schools) had been planning for in-person, hybrid, and remote learning since last March, with most schools opening with in-person learning this fall.
“We’ve always been planning with three modes in mind,” said Dr. Donna Hargen, Superintendent of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Dr. Hargen and the Archdiocese believe factors distinct to the Catholic school systems, such as smaller school sizes; a small number of students that take buses; and access to new technologies and training, have uniquely positioned the Archdiocese to safely reopen for in-person instruction as well as being prepared to pivot to remote if necessary.
While school administrators have instituted new social distancing policies to keep students and faculty safe – such as reorganization of classrooms and hallways, creation of isolation areas for possible cases, removal of lunch periods and homerooms, and placing students in cohorts in order to limit exposure and improve contact tracing – the Archdiocese has placed a large amount of faith in its students and parents to keep their small community COVID free. Students must fill out a medical survey at the beginning of every day, which records a self-taken temperature check while also asking questions about possible exposures.
“I think the concern was not so much them and their capabilities,” Said Christine Reshestiloff, an English teacher at St. Mary’s High School, about the Archdiocese abilities to open, “but I think that they were maybe thinking this is going to be too much for the kids to absorb in terms of complying since we’re right downtown.”
Reshestiloff said many teachers, herself included, had some serious concerns walking in that first day. But as the week continued, she believes herself, the staff, and the students are prepared to take on the rest of the year.
“We are a hundred percent all in it together,” Reshestillof said, “We are relying on each other, meaning faculty, administration, kids working together as a team.”
Some parents still have their doubts though. Lauren Zurich, whos 13-year-old son attends St. Mary’s Middle School, says she fully expects cases to emerge and is already planning to switch her son from in-person to full remote learning, just days after going back to school.
Zurich admits she was relieved when she heard her son was not enjoying the changes that allow for him to be back in class, confessing “this would not be a normal happy thing for a parent.”
Lauren, like most parents, believes there is no replacement for in-person learning but has had her household on a strict lock-down throughout the pandemic. The Zurichs are at unusually high risk for severe COVID cases, as Lauren herself suffers from an autoimmune disorder, her husband a cancer survivor, and her 7-month-old daughter was in the NICU after being born with underdeveloped lungs.
“All summer long, like he’s not been allowed to have any, you know, friends or anything,” Lauren says about her 13-year-old, “I wanted him to have some social interaction which I know that doesn’t make sense logically, but to me, I felt like at least he would be able to have, you know, interactions with his friends.”
But Lauren expects to make the switch soon, while also expressing her concerns about the quality of remote learning and her dissatisfaction with last semester.
“I think he [Zurich’s son] liked it because you’re like, ‘Oh yes, I don’t have school anymore’,” Lauren said, “And there was nothing to show for like homework or things like that. I mean, the teachers had no idea what was going on.”
But while Christine Reshestillof believe’s the faculty have their worries also, they trust her community and feel prepared – due to new technology and training provided by the Archdiocese – to make the switch to full remote if cases do start to emerge.
“I don’t want anybody to be at any kind of disadvantage”, Reshestillof said, “I did sign up to be a teacher so I could teach.”