The community is beginning to question the start of online instruction and the public’s availability to it, including a St. Mary’s delegate.
Maryland students have been out of school since March 16 due to the novel coronavirus and the statewide school closure was recently extended to April 24. During that time, St. Mary’s school staff have been working to make at-home learning a possibility. They gave surveys online and in-person to see which community members have access to internet and mentioned the availability of learning programs through the main school system website.
An online program, with student-specific courses, became officially available on Wednesday, however, teachers will not start instructing until April 14 — the first day students would have returned to classes after spring break. St. Mary’s superintendent said the date had to do with the school calendar he does not have control of and the negotiated agreement with educator unions he cannot break.
But that’s not good enough for Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s).
“During this challenging time of students missing, and continuing to miss education days in the classroom, it seems counterproductive that the school system would shut down at this time,” he said in a letter addressed to St. Mary’s school board on Wednesday. “It seems like a terrible time to take a pre-defined week-long break three weeks into a crisis.”
He said parents, teachers and students, including himself, are struggling with remote learning and he is requesting the school board revisit the calendar not only for the spring break but for the rest of the year. He said there are professional development days, an election day and snow makeup days that could be used for class days, whether in school or at home. He added Baltimore County public schools have done something similar.
Morgan said he is aware of the contract with the Education Association for St. Mary’s County and St. Mary’s Association of Supervisors and Administrators agreement that require a certain amount of work days and days off, but “I would contend that because of the current situation, there have been and continue to be many exceptions made to pre-negotiated contracts,” citing rental and mortgage agreements.
“I have no doubt that the current contract with the teacher’s union would fall into the same category as it is a priority to ensure educational opportunities for our children continue during these difficult times,” he wrote.
Karin Bailey, chair of the school board, called Morgan’s letter “irresponsible.”
She said given the timing of the school closure announcements and the restrictions to the state’s Open Meetings Act, the school board cannot simply change the calendar as the delegate suggested. The unions’ negotiated agreements are set on the school calendar and the board “can’t compel anyone to work other than what’s on that calendar,” Bailey said.
The initial closure from March 16 to 27 was announced on March 12. At the time, Bailey said they had enough makeup days on the school calendar to keep spring break intact.
The closure extension to April 24 was announced only a couple hours before the board’s March 25 meeting. Bailey said “we can’t just willy nilly go ahead” and change the calendar then and there. It requires an addition to the agenda that needs at least a 48-hour heads-up to the public. She mentioned the school system has not been given much guidance from the state.
The state school superintendent last month when announcing the initial two-week closure did suggest school systems could use spring break as makeup days.
Bailey said Morgan’s mention of Baltimore County was an “extremely unfair comparison” since they have very different calendars and a negotiated agreement with teacher’s unions are confined to collective bargaining laws and completely different from rental and mortgage agreements.
The school board chair said there is a lot of work and moving parts behind the scenes and it is not practical to make the changes Morgan suggested. Bailey said her own kids were doing their online work Thursday morning and people should “stop and realize that people are moving heaven and earth to make sure students are still learning.”
Cathy Allen, vice chair of the school board, said Thursday morning she had not had a chance to speak with other board members about Morgan’s letter yet and noted the next school board meeting isn’t until April 15, after the scheduled spring break.
Boards can and have scheduled emergency meetings outside of regular meeting schedules.
Some community members took to Facebook to question whether steps have been taken to make at-home learning accessible. And Carla Jackson, a Great Mills High School volunteer and band booster, wrote a letter to The Enterprise and county officials voicing similar concerns. She said she received a message from her child’s school about Edgenuity, an online program, and that anyone without internet access can arrange for paper materials
“Those children will not benefit from the interaction with the teachers. They will struggle to get feedback. Many of them also don’t have transportation. How will they keep up?” she asked.
She also questioned why can’t Atlantic Broadband supply free WiFi and computers to students like internet and cable companies have done in other districts.
“The county commissioners, the school board, and the district superintendent are leaving so many of our low income children to paper materials with no hope of teacher interaction. The rich kids will be fine. The poor kids are being discriminated against,” she said, later adding she would be willing to pitch in to purchase Chromebooks if needed.
At last week’s school board meeting, Superintendent Scott Smith said 9,000 laptops with Windows 10 could be handed to kids who do not have their own devices to access the online programs. That would not on its own address lack of internet connectivity.
School administrators are also looking to utilize Atlantic Broadband’s Channel 96 and creating printed packets for every grade level.