Mary­land’s pub­lic, pri­vate schools take op­po­site tracks

Catholic and in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions say they can hold in-per­son classes safely

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Liz Bowie

As Mary­land’s pub­lic schools an­nounced their de­ci­sions to keep their doors closed at least for the be­gin­ning of the school year, pri­vate schools have done just the re­verse — ar­gu­ing they have the abil­ity to give fam­i­lies the in-per­son classes they want while keep­ing stu­dents safe.

Be­cause of their small size, some ex­perts say, pri­vate and Catholic schools are bet­ter able to make quick ad­just­ments to their cur­ricu­lum and of­ten have more phys­i­cal space to spread stu­dents out. But fi­nan­cial forces and teach­ers unions are also shap­ing pub­lic and pri­vate school de­ci­sions.

“The driver has been meet­ing the needs of our stu­dents,” said Donna Har­gens, the su­per­in­ten­dent of Catholic schools in the Baltimore arch­dio­cese. “The in­ter­per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion is es­sen­tial to the learn­ing process, and we know that some of our stu­dents strug­gled with re­mote learn­ing, es­pe­cially those with learn­ing needs.”

Pub­lic schools, mean­while, of­ten have to cope with tightly packed class­rooms and buses, and pres­sure from unions not to re­open.

What makes a school seem safe is be­ing de­bated fu­ri­ously across so­cial me­dia this week as par­ents and teach­ers be­gin to con­front the de­ci­sions be­ing made by schools.

Stu­dents who en­ter arch­dioce­san schools will be re­quired to fill out health ques­tion­naires, have their tem­per­a­tures checked, wear masks and be so­cially dis­tanced in­side class­rooms. Stu­dents will eat in their class­rooms, go out­side for what the arch­dio­cese is call­ing mask breaks, and teach­ers — not stu­dents — will

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ro­tate through the halls.

Be­cause Catholic school par­ents get their chil­dren to and from school, Har­gens said her schools have an ad­van­tage over pub­lic schools, which are re­quired to pro­vide trans­porta­tion. Pub­lic school lead­ers say one of the im­ped­i­ments to start­ing school has been how to safely trans­port stu­dents on buses that can only hold a frac­tion of the num­ber of stu­dents they usu­ally carry.

Har­gens said most of their schools are very small with only a few hun­dred stu­dents and have the abil­ity to ex­pand class­room spa­ces by us­ing com­mon ar­eas such as gyms and cafe­te­rias.

The Arch­dio­cese of Baltimore schools are like many Catholic schools across the na­tion that have de­cided to stay open, said Luis Huerta, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion and pub­lic pol­icy at Teach­ers Col­lege in New York City.

One of the very prob­lems that has plagued Catholic schools over the past sev­eral decades — de­clin­ing en­roll­ment — may be what is now mak­ing it pos­si­ble for those same schools to stay open, he said.

“The Catholic schools right now are more nim­ble in their abil­ity to open be­cause they have lost mar­ket share and have more open seats,” said Huerta.

Pri­vate schools — par­tic­u­larly those with high price tags, large en­dow­ments and posh cam­puses — also may have more phys­i­cal space that al­lows dis­tanc­ing, he said. Sev­eral Baltimore-area pri­vate schools, in­clud­ing Boys’ Latin, Friends School and The Park School of Baltimore, de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle or did not re­spond to re­quests for in­ter­views.

The state of Mary­land, on the other hand, has en­cour­aged its pub­lic school sys­tems in re­cent years to build larger el­e­men­tary schools, hold­ing up to 700 stu­dents each, and many Cen­tral Mary­land schools are at ca­pac­ity or re­quire portable class­rooms.

Neal McCluskey, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on Ed­u­ca­tional Free­dom at the Cato In­sti­tute, said some pri­vate schools may see en­roll­ment grow as pub­lic school par­ents leave in search of in-per­son schools.

McCluskey said Catholic and pri­vate schools have an ad­van­tage in the mar­ket­place if they of­fer in-per­son in­struc­tion and pub­lic schools don’t. “Most are likely to see greater sta­bil­ity in their en­roll­ment if they open.”

The Cato In­sti­tute tracked the clo­sure of about 100 Catholic schools in the early months of the pan­demic, in­clud­ing the In­sti­tute of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Mary­land’s old­est all-girls prep school. IND said it was clos­ing, in part, be­cause of the pan­demic. The U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops was pre­dict­ing the most clo­sures since 2012, but those clo­sures ap­pear to have stopped, per­haps, McCluskey said, be­cause pub­lic school par­ents are be­gin­ning to move to Catholic schools.

Har­gen said they are re­ceiv­ing an in­crease in ap­pli­ca­tions, although they will only ac­cept as many stu­dents as they can hold and still ad­here to fed­eral Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion guide­lines.

The de­ci­sion by pub­lic schools is send­ing many par­ents in search of al­ter­na­tives.

“Un­for­tu­nately, I think I am go­ing to have to home-school her,” said Rachael La­tini, who lives in the Tow­son area and has a Baltimore County third grader. “There is lit­er­ally no way we can com­mit to hav­ing her on­line at cer­tain times of the day and do three hours of in­de­pen­dent work.” La­tini said she, a den­tal hy­gien­ist, and her hus­band, an elec­tri­cian, must go to work.

Their daugh­ter will have to go to work with one of them or stay at home alone, she said. “I have looked into ev­ery­thing. I am run­ning out of op­tions.”

She first con­sid­ered join­ing a pod, a group of stu­dents of the same age who spend time in some­one’s house to do re­mote learn­ing or with a tu­tor. But, she said, other fam­i­lies don’t want their chil­dren ex­posed to her child be­cause La­tini and her hus­band work out­side the house.

She said they looked into day care, but spots are dif­fi­cult to find and the prices have risen be­cause many are of­fer­ing to over­see re­mote teach­ing.

“We have been priced out of day care,” La­tini said.

Pub­lic school lead­ers ac­knowl­edge the dif­fi­cult choice La­tini and her fam­ily are fac­ing, but McCluskey and oth­ers say there are many fac­tors driv­ing de­ci­sions about whether to re­open.

“If you are a gov­er­nor or a su­per­in­ten­dent, the in­cen­tives may be that you are con­ser­va­tive about safety,” McCluskey said. “If one per­son gets COVID, you feel re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he said. But in the case of pri­vate and parochial schools, par­ents are pay­ing money and mak­ing a choice to send their chil­dren and have de­cided to take the risk.

Teach­ers unions in Mary­land and across the na­tion are also play­ing a role in pres­sur­ing school lead­ers to stay with on­line teach­ing to be­gin the year. Unions rep­re­sent­ing nearly all the state’s teach­ers have ex­pressed op­po­si­tion to a re­turn to class­rooms for at least the first se­mes­ter, and ear­lier this week one of the na­tion’s largest teach­ers unions au­tho­rized its teach­ers to strike if their school dis­tricts don’t take proper safety pre­cau­tions.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Repub­li­can rep­re­sent­ing por­tions of Baltimore and Har­ford coun­ties, said that “we care about the safety of our kids and those who work in the pub­lic schools,” but that she be­lieves the teach­ers unions have had “un­due in­flu­ence over the de­ci­sion-mak­ing.”

Catholic and pri­vate school teach­ers don’t have unions that can speak out for them if teach­ers feel un­com­fort­able in the class­room. Har­gens said they are work­ing with their teach­ers to en­sure they feel safe, guid­ing them through what class­rooms will look and feel like and go­ing over pro­to­cols.

The dis­par­ity be­tween pri­vate schools go­ing back to in-per­son in­struc­tion and pub­lic schools stay­ing closed ap­pears to be a na­tional trend, ac­cord­ing to McCluskey, although there is only anec­do­tal in­for­ma­tion so far.

If that trend holds, ad­vo­cates of the use of vouch­ers are hop­ing to see an in­crease in pres­sure from par­ents who want to use fed­eral money to fund pri­vate school tu­ition, as U.S. ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos has cham­pi­oned.

Many par­ents were broadly dis­sat­is­fied with the re­mote learn­ing of­fered in the spring, but they ac­cepted that it was tem­po­rary, par­tic­u­larly as pub­lic schools be­gan plan­ning through the sum­mer for in-per­son in­struc­tion.

But that quickly changed in Mary­land in the past two weeks, as one large district af­ter an­other be­gan an­nounc­ing it would be go­ing on­line for the first se­mes­ter. In the past two days, Car­roll and Fred­er­ick coun­ties, with more con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing pop­u­la­tions, have an­nounced on­line learn­ing.

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