The 2020-2021 School Year

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We now know the score for the fall. School will start in an all-virtual environment. None of us wanted this. Our students should be learning in school buildings. This pandemic has put AACPS and school systems across the state and country between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, we have a virus that has killed more than 150,000 Americans nationally and more than 3,300 in Maryland in five months. On the other hand, our children’s education is at stake.

Inevitably, this decision will be celebrated by some and hated by others. None of the options on the table are ideal. We all want to go back to pre-COVID-19 days where congregating with others, including attending school with pre-COVID-19 class sizes, wasn’t a huge health risk to students, teachers and staff, all of whom could also bring the virus home to their families.

In the days that followed the announcement that the 2020-2021 year will start entirely virtual, I have been both praised for the decision and also the target of hate mail. The ultimate decisionmakers are Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, Dr. Karen Salmon, and Governor Larry Hogan. This was never the AACPS Board of Education’s decision. Additionally, daily school operations are under the purview of the superintendent, Dr. George Arlotto. While I do agree with the decision to start in an all-virtual environment, I also would have supported a hybrid model had that option been recommended by Dr. Arlotto and supported by both the Anne Arundel County health officer, Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, as well as the state.

To support an all-virtual and synchronous learning environment, AACPS is moving toward a 1:1 technology ratio for all students and is also connecting families without internet with community partners offering free or low-cost internet services. If you need a Chromebook for your AACPS student or students for the upcoming academic year or need internet service, please reach out to your child’s principal to make arrangements. Of course, if you experience difficulties contacting your child’s school, you can always reach me at dschallheim@aacps.org and I will ensure your email reaches staff members who can help.

Let’s also clarify that the announcement illustrates the worst-case scenario. Dr. Arlotto stated during the July 22 Board of Education meeting that if the situation improves, we could move to a hybrid environment before the end of the semester. Additionally, we are hoping, and frankly I am expecting, that we’ll invite small groups of our most vulnerable students for limited in-person instruction on a voluntary basis — including those with special needs, English language learners, and CAT North and CAT South students — to mitigate against further widening of gaps and to fulfill aspects of IEPs (individualized education programs) that are difficult to conduct virtually, such as occupational therapy and physical therapy.

So just how do we move from an all-virtual environment to our students returning to school buildings? That decision rests in all our hands. Remember that ‘80s Smokey the Bear ad that stated, “Only you can prevent forest fires?” I think this is a great analogy for the COVID-19 pandemic. If we, that’s all of us, follow Governor Hogan’s orders to wear masks (over both your nose and mouth), and practice social distancing and frequent handwashing, we will return to school buildings quicker than if we disregard the rules.

If we all do our part, our local and state trends for new positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths will decline and our students’ education will begin to look as it did last February. It won’t be a light switch. The next step after an all-virtual environment will be to implement a hybrid model, again with the safety of our students and teachers as the highest priority. Please continue to reach out with your ideas and concerns by emailing dschallheim@aacps.org.

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