In the absence of any leadership from state government, top Assembly leaders and county/city school superintendents work to plan how to safely create school environments -- in-school or remote -- and what they need to make the school systems both safe and effective. Their list of needs is long and the response from the Hogan administration and state schools officials sounds suspiciously like crickets. These two accounts describe a thoughtful encounter Thursday (Aug. 13) between two state Senate leaders and three school superintendents (and readers of the BlogSpace can stream the whole discussion) as well as an opinion piece earlier this week by Sen. Paul Pinsky, who chairs the Senate education panel and was one of the participants. Pinsky lays out the concerns raised by the health emergency and some practices that might make a difference.
/By Elizabeth Shwe <> Maryland Matters/ In the absence of specific guidance from the Maryland State Department of Education, state legislators are encouraging local school superintendents to coordinate a set of common standards that all schools must meet to reopen for in-person learning.
During an online education roundtable [stream it here; be patient with the bumpy start] hosted by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) Thursday, three school superintendents agreed that there needed to be clear, uniform statewide metrics for each school district to follow as they work on their reopening plans, such as the number of positive cases that warrant closing a school building.
[Ferguson, who taught high school social studies for two years before beginning his career in local government as an education specialist, has a Masters in education. Pinsky was a longtime history teacher in Prince George’s public schools.]
Without such statewide guidelines, there may be “finger-pointing” from county to county, as well as questions of why some students are going back to school in-person while others are not, said Pinsky, chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Having different reopening approaches across the state can cause confusion and casts doubt on their credibility, said Jack Smith, superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools. If another school district uses a different approach than his own, Smith said he may wonder if their approach is better and if he should change his plans.
“Don’t tell me to follow CDC guidelines, don’t tell me to work with my county health department,” Smith said. “What’s a standard for the school environment?”
Specific concerns, such as whether plexiglass barriers are necessary for school secretaries, are not clearly addressed in CDC guidelines, said Sonja Santelises, CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools. These are the kinds of situations that were “frankly left to us [local school systems] to come across rather than being part of standard operating procedures.”
Consistent metrics across the state would also help build staff and parents’ confidence in returning to school because information would be as transparent as possible, rather than appearing as if it were made behind closed doors, Santelises said.
Summer school teachers in Baltimore were afraid to return to in-person learning at first, but they began to feel comfortable when there were safety standards in place, such as limiting the number of children in each classroom to seven or eight, Santelises said.
Having an expedited testing procedure for staff as a part of the statewide guidelines would also be helpful, superintendents said. One employee was thought to have contracted COVID-19 while working in summer school, and it took 10-12 days to learn that it was a negative case, Santelises said.
“If we could shrink that window, the ability to keep learning in-person is much easier than to just shut everything down for two weeks every time someone thinks they might [be positive],” she said.
The superintendents also questioned their ability to pay for all the extra reopening costs.
The Talbot County school system received $880,000 more than last year from the state, but Talbot County Superintendent Kelly Griffith said she was told that the funding may be in jeopardy. “If that happens, we’re going to be in real trouble and we will have to…make those difficult decisions not to open,” she said.
Figuring out what the non-negotiables are is important for school districts to be able to develop a sustainable plan, Griffith said.
Santelises said Baltimore City received $24 million for tutoring, but she later discovered that the district had to spend all that money within 2 1/2 months.
“It sounds like tons of money, but to only have it for September and October…we’ve now ‘rushed’ spent $24 million…you don’t have that same quality plan,” Santieles said. “I think that the way that the funds come is as important as the funds themselves.”
It would be ideal if the state secretary of Health and state schools superintendent could take the lead as much as possible in developing a common standard that all schools must meet to reopen face-to-face learning, the superintendents said.
But because local school districts have not received such guidance from the state, Pinsky suggested that all 24 superintendents coordinate with each other and their local health officials to establish common reopening standards.
“There is no right answer here,” Ferguson said. “In the case of not having a right or true answer, some answer is better than no answer, and if there is consistency and certainty, that will at least be able to be some basis by which decisions can be made in the best interest of outcomes for kids.”
Here is Pinsky’s Maryland Matters opinion piece (Wednesday, Aug. 12) on setting statewide standards for school practices for the continuing health emergency
/By Sen. Paul Pinsky<>Maryland Matters/ President Trump and Betsy DeVos, his sycophantic secretary of Education, seem to have only one thing on their minds these days: winning the November election. And the duo think they can and will win if schools reopen this fall. At election time, they’re betting, grateful parents will reward them.
But that bet rests on a false assumption. The Trump crew is assuming that parents want their kids out of the house so much they’ll be willing, come September, to put their children’s health at risk.
Parents have sent no such signal. In fact, more than a few parents are proclaiming they won’t let their kids resume classes on school site until we have a vaccine — or the coronavirus is thoroughly contained.
All these cross-pressures have educators in a classic bind. Open too early and we risk the health of not just kids and school staff, but entire communities. Open too late and kids from families in need may never catch up.
We need to reframe the debate. We shouldn’t be arguing over whether we reopen or not. Only one question matters: How do we reopen and under what circumstances?
Now, clearly, we shouldn’t be in this predicament at all. If we had some real presidential leadership, if we had a president with a moral compass, the COVID-19 epidemic might already be over — or at least contained. We have not yet come even close to that point. Our United States still has no effective national policy on the coronavirus, no consistent set of standards and recommended behaviors.
How can schools reopen in this atmosphere? How can we expect teachers to enforce mask-wearing with their students when the president and many governors have been unwilling to mandate masks in bars and other problematic settings? With front-line workers in many hospitals not getting regularly tested, how can we have any confidence that we can adequately test school staff?
Those who sit in the “no way, no how” no-return-to-school camp have equally difficult questions to consider. No reputable scientists or medical professionals can tell us exactly when — of even if — we’ll have the coronavirus fully contained. No one knows when a safe, effective vaccine will appear, or when that vaccine will be available in enough quantity to cover our entire population.
In other words, we can’t turn pandemics on and off like a light switch. The virus solutions we seek will only come through careful science, through trial and inevitable error. All that may take years. We cannot expect to fill these years with only distance learning. Expecting Zoom to keep our students engaged and learning for long periods of time would be a recipe for social, emotional, and educational disaster. In our increasingly segregated schools, African-American and other students of color would bear the disproportionate negative burden.
Students need direct instruction and real-time feedback. Teachers need to see children’s faces, the smiles that come when they comprehend, the frowns that signal confusion. Children need to experience the socialization success that comes with interacting with other students. They need to learn from each other and participate in group work. Learning in isolation will always be dehumanizing.
So we need to bring students back, but only as quickly as safety allows.
The steps to reopening schools I’m proposing here will only succeed with responsible state leadership. Our state’s 24 educational jurisdictions need to have the state set the tone and provide the necessary resources. Unfortunately, our state’s top leadership has, like the White House, chosen to abdicate virtually all responsibility, leaving most everything to the locals.
This abdication might make political sense. By abdicating, after all, our governor and state superintendent of schools are shielding themselves from any potential fallout. But we need and deserve better.
State school superintendent Karen Salmon should be setting the quantifiable virus metrics for the state that can enable us to begin a systematic return to our classrooms. With these metrics in place on aspects of the pandemic like new cases per 100,000, positive test result rolling averages and transmission rates, local systems could proceed to begin reopening up.
Those counties lagging, by the metrics, would begin the reopening process later. This would ensure that there would be no finger-pointing, claiming one county was less safe than another.
The governor and state superintendent should also be setting statewide, medical-based protocols for handling situations when students or staff members come down with COVID-19. How many cases in a classroom would necessitate the closing of that room and sending students home? How many to close a building? We need state standards, coupled with the resources needed to meet those standards, on everything from testing and contact tracing to isolation safeguards.
Finally, Governor Hogan must guarantee that no localities go without essential coronavirus protective materials — the masks, the sanitizing agents, shields, all the basics — and make sure as well that all our school systems build in reassessment periods to decide whether to pull back, keep moving, or open faster.
Bringing students back en masse — as the president demands — will only exacerbate the current virus spike and put both school staff and the broader population at risk. Yes, school-age kids may not get deathly sick from the coronavirus, but they can still spread the virus to their more vulnerable family members and neighbors.
Actual data can help us here. Not one child in Maryland under the age of 10 has died from the virus. Most medical studies, including the largest to date from South Korea, show that children under 10 spread the COVID-19 disease at significantly lower levels than young people between 10 and 19.
Given these numbers, why not start preparing for school reopenings in grades up to 4 or 5? Why not split this elementary-age population in half, as one Maryland county has suggested, and have half of the students attend Monday and Tuesday and half Thursday and Friday, leaving Wednesday for crossover cleaning? Why not couple this schedule with more frequent testing for those staff members who come into contact with the attending students?
Would this approach be perfect? Of course not. We would need clear post-infection protocols and requisite contact tracing in place before any reopenings. To make our testing more efficient, we should also be using commingled pooled testing, probes that would tell us if anyone within a classroom has the virus, information that can then trigger immediate individual tests within that classroom.
What sort of timeline should we be considering? We have the time and opportunity right now to develop more detailed plans for reopening schools — by the second semester, if not sooner — for students up to age 10. And this reopening could then serve as a real world guide to proceeding with secondary students.
Let’s be clear about what this proposal entails. I’m not suggesting that we treat young students as those proverbial “canaries in a coal mine.” I’m not proposing to sacrifice anyone. We would instead be recognizing that younger students rate as less prone to serious illness and virus spread. These younger students have no firm, fully developed education foundation. They need one. They should be the first to benefit from any return to the classroom.
Moving down this path would take the cooperation of all school stakeholders. Surveys, with the support of staff unions, could tell us how many educators would be willing to return with clear protocols in place. Administrators, parents, and teachers and other school staff would all then need to be at the table when decisions get made. And we can’t afford to ignore the questions and concerns students may have either.
We need, in short, a more nuanced public conversation over how to reopen our schools. Yes, any return to the classroom will be risky. But an honest, open conversation over how to do that return shouldn’t be.
The writer, a former teacher, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland Senate, where he chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Published Wednesday, August 12 by Maryland Matters.
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