Maryland Lawmakers Discuss Virtual Schools As Permanent Option

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Delegate Kathy Szeliga, a Republican representing Harford and Baltimore counties, has introduced House Bill 1170, Primary and Secondary Education - Virtual Schools, a bill that would provide Maryland families with access to a tuition-free, full-time online public school option for their children. The bill was cross-filed in the Senate by Senator Ed Reilly, who represents District 33 in Anne Arundel County.

If passed, the bills will authorize the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), a county board of education, or a public institution of higher education to establish a statewide virtual school. Students may enroll in any virtual school in the state, regardless of where they live.

Under current law, the MSDE or a local board can establish a virtual school that is not statewide.

The House of Delegates’ Ways and Means Committee held a hearing for the House bill on March 3.

“COVID’s been terrible in so many ways, but one way that we can see some positive things is that we now know some students actually really thrive in this environment,” Szeliga said. “…I think this would allow that to continue happening for the students and families across our state.”

Testimony came mostly from supporters of the bill. Christie Jackson gave her perspective as a special educator.

“Over my 19 years of experience as a special educator, I have been privileged to work with students of all walks of life, but mostly students with disabilities,” she said. “I have watched students try to fit into the public brick and mortar traditional school system, which works for most students, however, over my years, I can think of so many students who would have benefitted from an online virtual school option had it been available to them.”

Dayana Bergman opposed the bill, saying that even prior to COVID-19, her home of Baltimore County has provided students with access to eLearning and Home and Hospital options (for students with certified physical illnesses, emotional conditions or pregnancy conditions).

Under this legislation, the virtual school would be exempt from state policies or regulations relating to attendance, curriculum, class size, instruction, staffing ratios, professional development, and textbooks.

“I don’t understand how we could have state dollars with no oversight,” Bergman said.

Only up to 1 percent of school-aged children from any county (or Baltimore City) can enroll in any particular statewide virtual public school.

Szeliga admitted the virtual option is just that, a choice, and that it would not be best for everyone.

“I know that full-time online public school isn’t for everyone, but I also know that it’s the right fit for a growing number of families,” Szeliga said. “Now is the time to enable Maryland’s public schools to give students the option to thrive in virtual learning.”

Both bills have not yet reached a vote by the full House of Delegates or Senate. To stay updated on their progress, search for HB1170 or SB941 at www.mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite.

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