Maryland’s schools are scheduled to open in a matter of weeks for the 2020-21 school year. Yet many school districts still are unable to share their plans for educating in the COVID-19 world. While the Maryland State Department of Education has released an updated Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education, individual school districts can take as long as to August 14th to complete and publicize their plans.[i]
Schools must work through a thicket of thorny issues, as varied as conducting social distancing on school busses and in classrooms, to conducting instruction while many students – and teachers too – are not present in classrooms. As with many other aspects of the pandemic challenge, a successful response requires a willingness to experiment and try creative responses.
Maryland remains far behind other states in embracing distance learning. For example, tuition-free online public charter schools are already available in some 30 states, but not in Maryland.
As many as 375,000 K-12 students attended an online school in 2018-2019.[ii] Online school students work from home and follow a set curriculum, submitting assignments through an online portal. These students engage with accredited teachers via email, web conference, or phone calls. While parents do not act as teachers, online school programs do involve parents more directly in their child’s education. Parents act as a learning coach, helping students stay on track.
Regrettably, just as teacher unions have long opposed other forms of school choice, they have also undermined virtual classrooms’ availability. In Oregon, unions pressured school officials to block transfers of students into public charter schools that use virtual classrooms.[iii] Michigan’s state superintendent has clashed with parents over giving academic credit for online learning, citing state law requiring in-person attendance.[iv] And in a policy worthy of the name “Leave Every Child Behind,” some districts have prevented online learning because of the inequity that online cannot be readily provided for every child. [v]
Maryland’s State Department of Education does offer a small glimmer of hope that districts can incorporate more virtual learning in their COVID plans. Their Recovery Plan says: “There is a process in place to request advanced approval from the State Superintendent for local school systems who wish to offer a locally developed virtual school or to contract with a virtual school vendor.”[vi]
Better yet, though, Maryland public schools should join the majority of states that already offer some form of tuition-free online public education. According to one poll taken during the COVID shutdown, a significant number of parents are now ready to turn to educational alternatives. The poll shows that 40% of families say they are now more likely to look to either homeschooling or consider virtual schooling. Sixty-four per-cent support school choice. [vii]
Many parents are, perhaps, underwhelmed by the transition their children’s classroom teachers made to online instruction this past Spring. As are a result, they want the more experienced virtual instruction that more specialized providers can offer.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered the following recommendations for adding distance learning to public education:
· “Every district should make available a device and Wi-Fi so every child can participate in online learning. The digital divide must be closed.
· Every district should practice and plan for distance-learning days every year. Distance learning isn’t just for pandemics; it’s also for times when schools would otherwise be closed — whether for snow, hurricanes, or other emergency events.
· Every district should make sure teachers and other instructional professionals understand how to use distance-learning tools effectively.
· Every district must plan to virtually serve students with special needs, nonnative English learners, and others who require more attention.” [viii]
Maryland’s 45 charter schools enroll nearly 23,000 students in pre-K through 12th grades. These are fully publicschools, with students from a wide range of neighborhoods, income levels, and ethnic backgrounds. Their results are very encouraging.
While these Maryland public charter schools predominantly serve low-income and/or minority students, their students are achieving at a higher rate than their traditional public school counterparts. In a year (180 school days), these students experience higher academic progress than their peers to the equivalent of 30 additional days of learning in reading and about 35 additional days of learning in math.[ix]
As the state’s public schools make their plans to reopen for the 2020-21 school year, Maryland should stop being a hold-out, and give parents and their children the option to use tuition-free online education from charter providers.
[vi] “There is a process in place to request advanced approval from the State Superintendent for local school systems who wish to offer a locally developed virtual school or to contract with a virtual school vendor.” P. 24 http://marylandpublicschools.org/newsroom/Documents/MSDERecoveryPlan.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2c5XiQF5NcQ6TWjyFZpDG2cJ77An-blUvR2ECAPuAihGug0J3Y37e1zmw
[viii] “It’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/03/jeb-bush-its-time-embrace-distance-learning-not-just-because-coronavirus/[ix]https://myemail.constantcontact.com/CREDO-study-says-Maryland-public-charter-schools-work.html