Maryland’s new State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury told state lawmakers that it’s his intention to see school systems remain open throughout the coming school year.
Choudhury told members of two Maryland House committees, “One of the first things to know is that we are returning back to full-day, five-days-a-week in-person learning.”
He is aware that the delta variant of the coronavirus has raised concerns about safety, but he said, “That is not going to stop us” from having schools open.
Twenty-two of the state’s 24 school districts will be offering some level of virtual learning, but Choudhury made it clear that he views the virtual model as inferior to in-class instruction.
Referring to virtual programs, Choudhury said nationally it’s very clear: “They’re not good; they don’t get it done when it comes to student achievement.”
Virtual learning works for those few students who are highly motivated, good at time management and who don’t hesitate to ask for help when needed, Choudhury said.
In Maryland, he noted, there are standards for virtual instruction that require that teachers be certified and instruction would have to adhere to the school district’s curriculum.
Del. Carol Krimm, who represents Frederick County, asked Choudhury if local education agencies would be authorized to go to “total virtual learning” if the metrics for COVID-19 got “totally out of hand.”
Chouhury told her there is currently nothing to block a school system from going to a fully virtual format, but he added, “I just don’t see why that would need to happen.”
When looking at learning loss, Choudhury told lawmakers to expect to see a drop in student achievement, in some cases, a dramatic drop. He provided some data from Texas, where he previously worked as an associate superintendent in the San Antonio district, which showed years of student academic progress wiped out by the impact of the coronavirus.
Choudhury said it’s important for the public to keep in mind that before the pandemic, only about 20% of students reached proficiency. “What we were doing before is not going to be enough,” he said.
Masks, vaccinations and more
Del. Darryl Barnes, whose district is in Prince George’s County, told Choudhury that face coverings are a huge concern for the return of students.
Barnes asked about any protocols for allowing students breaks, where they could have masks off when outdoors, for example. He said a lot of the schools are old and have ventilation systems “that are not as great as we would like.”
Choudhury told Barnes that schools should follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, but said that there was no mandate. He also said school systems could use federal funds for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and that only 20% of federal funding for education was mandated for instructional purposes. Although Choudhury added that in the short term, schools should consider ways to work around ventilation issues.
Del. Jared Solomon said he was concerned about many of the students in his community who are English language learners who dropped out during the pandemic, in some cases, to go to work to help families make ends meet.
Choudhury told Solomon that there’s no reason those students can’t return and do well in school.
“Maryland needs to know that. It’s not a mystery on how to educate English language learners,” Choudhury said, adding that it’s an area of special concern for him.
“I started as an ESL teacher in middle school in Los Angeles, so I do have a chip on my shoulder about how to do this well,” Choudhury said.
Also presenting at Wednesday afternoon’s hearing with members of the House Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees was Sean Bulson, Harford County Superintendent and current legislative chair of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland.
Bulson was asked about what kind of supports schools and teachers could expect on enforcing mask policies in schools.
“We’ve not yet announced our position on masking, but it’s something we’ve been talking about,” Bulson said, adding that mask-wearing could be treated like any other disciplinary issue.
Del. Kirill Reznik brought up the issue of vaccinations, asking if there had been any talk among superintendents about calling for mandatory vaccinations for school personnel, “So that our kids are protected.”
Bulson said that was something that needs to occur at a state level, calling it a “very difficult subject.”
Reznik said it should not be.
“Every single person on this Zoom, when they went into school, were vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and other diseases,” Reznik said. “This shouldn’t be a difficult subject.”
Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost told the lawmakers said the association has been leading the push with its membership for everyone eligible to get vaccinated, calling it a “critical tool to eliminating the virus.”
“I do want to be crystal clear today, there is nothing more our members want than to return to in- person learning this school year. … To do that we must all work together to ensure there are safe and healthy learning and working conditions.”
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