Welcome back to buildings, students! It is mind-blowing that COVID-19 has robbed us all of a full year of in-person instruction. A year ago, jargon such as “social distancing,” “hybrid,” and “glitchy Google Meets” were not part of our lexicon. Finally, we have turned a corner on the long, winding road back to a normal school week for all students.
I would not say, however, that we are out of the woods. In-person instruction is only sustainable if we remain vigilant. How all of us conduct ourselves both during the school day and outside of schools will determine whether in-person classes will continue. As we have seen with several of our sports teams that have already been quarantined due to positive COVID cases, in-person instruction can also come to a grinding halt if we are not careful. That means we all need to continue to properly wear a mask over our nose and mouth, keep our distance, and wash our hands frequently.
The return of school also means the return of student bus transportation. I have received a many emails inquiring about early high school pickup times and long waits outside of closed schools before the school day begins. I was also disappointed to see that 23 of Severna Park High School’s (SPHS’s) 33 buses (70%) arrive more than 20 minutes before school begins – before the doors are open. Equally troubling is that at least one bus serving SPHS begins picking up students in the 5:00 hour and several start picking up students an hour before school begins. I will continue to encourage our transportation department to immediately re-evaluate morning pickup and drop-off times to ensure that students are not getting up unnecessarily early or waiting outside buildings before school doors open, especially while we still have them start school an hour before the American Academy of Pediatrics (amongst many others) recommended time of 8:30 or later.
Once again, our teachers are being asked to teach in a completely new way. Last spring, our wonderful educators provided our students with distance instruction for the first time, and we are now asking them to teach simultaneously to students in buildings and at home. Please be patient in the first days of in-person instruction as our teachers get used to this new model.
Some have asked why we must simultaneously teach both groups of students on most days of the school week. This is due to a Maryland State Department of Education mandate that all public Maryland prekindergarten through grade 12 schools offer an average of 3.5 hours of live, synchronous instruction per day. This rule was established last fall and remains in effect during hybrid instruction.
Similarly, I have received many complaints about the upcoming mandated state testing. I have stated repeatedly, and maintain, that any mandated state testing this year is a mistake. Many of our students are traumatized by the ongoing pandemic and related crises. State testing preparation and administration squanders valuable instruction time with only 22 in-person school days for some students. Instead, we must focus on our students’ mental health and educational recovery. These tests, while also not standardized because all students will not be in buildings, will only exacerbate student stress.
When I initially penned this column, the state was on track to test all students in grades three through eight in both English language arts and math this spring, however, they changed course during a special session held on March 4. In lieu of state-mandated tests this spring, relatively short diagnostic exams will be administered in the fall. I commend the Maryland State Board of Education and state superintendent of schools, Dr. Karen Salmon, for listening to the AACPS Board of Education as well as other school boards, students, parents and teachers statewide who made their opposition to mandated state testing this spring known and voted to not force these tests on our students this spring.
Nevertheless, I encourage you to continue voice your opinion regarding the number of mandated synchronous instruction hours and state testing. Please reach out to the Maryland State Board of Education as well as to your local, state, and federal officials and voice your concerns. The State Board of Education can be reached by emailing their assistant at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and asking that your comments be shared with the entire board. Dr. Karen Salmon, Maryland superintendent of schools, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.