The Washington Post Sunday

Maryland’s avoidable education crisis

- BY MARGERY SMELKINSON The writer is an infectious-disease scientist and a leader in Together Again MCPS.

President Biden wants schools fully reopened by his 100th day in office, April 30. To help this along, his policies and administra­tion have provided money, given vaccinatio­ns to educators and revised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention physical distancing guidance to enable more students to enter classrooms. Unfortunat­ely, meager reopening efforts by state and county officials may preclude Maryland from achieving this goal. The state hovers near last place in the country for offering live instructio­n.

Weeks ago, Maryland State Superinten­dent of Schools Karen B. Salmon encouraged districts to use three-feet distancing for all students in schools in accordance with the new CDC guidance, and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said students “must have the opportunit­y to return to attending school in some form or fashion.” Sadly, Maryland’s largest districts are reopening glacially, and it was naive to assume they would do otherwise. They are clearly serving other interests. The unscientif­ic policies and union demands that have kept schools closed for more than a year demonstrat­e our leaders’ ongoing apathy toward our children’s academic and mental well-being.

It will take far more than these weak nudges to get compliance out of districts, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s, that have been incredibly lethargic in returning students to classrooms. To achieve Biden’s goal, state leaders will need to mandate full reopening five days a week.

Eighty-six percent of U.S. publicscho­ol students attend schools that are offering instructio­n in person, many of them five days a week. The CDC reported in January that very few school outbreaks were recorded between March and December 2020 and that infection rates were the same in communitie­s offering live instructio­n as they were in those offering virtual. This is because schools can be, and usually are, reopened safely with basic and inexpensiv­e precaution­s.

However, as the state’s largest school boards remain slow to act, despite the research available on how to reopen safely, Maryland students are suffering the consequenc­es. The state’s failing report card reflects this negligence.

Second-quarter data shows most districts in Maryland have doubled or tripled failing grades in math and English compared with last year. Most districts are also reporting significan­t drops in attendance. This school disengagem­ent is a key driver of our youth mental health crisis, with diagnoses of anxiety and depression elevated over pre-pandemic times. The CDC, by comparing students learning in person with those learning remotely or in a hybrid model, links this mental health crisis, at least partly, to the seclusion of virtual learning.

Recognizin­g the extensive failings of online learning and the establishe­d safety of reopening, some of Maryland’s smaller counties, such as Cecil, Allegany and Carroll, have already returned students to school at least four days a week. In contrast, the lackadaisi­cal reopening efforts of Montgomery, Baltimore, Howard and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, comprising 60 percent of Maryland’s students, are unscientif­ic and disgracefu­l. As these districts also encompass three-quarters of Maryland’s Black and Hispanic population, this limits access to those very communitie­s suffering the worst with online learning.

In January, Hogan called on schools to reopen for hybrid instructio­n by March 1, but these five districts are taking until mid-April or later to return all students for a piddling few days a week. Some students will have waited 400 days for even this little amount of in-person instructio­n. Being large does not excuse this sluggish return. Many similarly sized or larger districts have returned all students to schools in two to three weeks, including neighborin­g Fairfax County, with 188,000 students. A better showing by these large counties is essential to ending Maryland’s infamy as one of the states offering the least amount of live instructio­n.

Adding insult to injury, even when students do return, many still languish in the isolation of Zoom because their teachers remain remote. Virtual instructio­n from the classroom is inadequate, does not address the academic needs of Maryland’s children, and does not reflect the live instructio­n that our children deserve and millions elsewhere are already receiving. Now that most Maryland teachers are vaccinated, which crushes transmissi­on and infection, these accommodat­ions must end. Teachers were prioritize­d for vaccinatio­n to provide live instructio­n.

Fully reopened schools are essential to reverse the downward trajectory of education in Maryland. Parents are ready to send kids back, but the largest counties are moving far too slowly, lengthenin­g waitlists instead of responding to community needs and recognizin­g the urgent harms of online learning.

Every day our children are out of school worsens this academic and mental health crisis. This is particular­ly pressing as a recent national survey shows large racial disparitie­s among students learning in person and those learning remotely, which will undoubtedl­y widen the education gap between White students and students of color.

Schools are open five days a week in most states. In some cases, where local leaders have floundered, governors and state boards of education have required schools to provide full-time live instructio­n.

With the fourth quarter approachin­g, state leaders here must mandate schools fully reopen this spring. Every day that they don’t, Marylander­s continue to fall further behind.

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