2020 | Coronavirus

UPDATED: Maryland schools closed for remainder of the academic year

'This is the right decision for ... safety and well-being,' MCPS superintendent says

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Maryland Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon speaks during a press conference in Annapolis on Wednesday.

Screenshot from live stream of press conference

Nearly two months after state officials closed Maryland schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, they announced Wednesday that students will not return to their buildings this academic year.

During a news conference, state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said she is “convinced this is the right decision to protect the health and safety of students” and school staff, extending the closure for the third time. Online learning, which started in late March for MCPS students, will continue.

The closures affect more than 166,000 students in 208 schools in Montgomery County, and nearly 900,000 students statewide.

The last day of classes in Montgomery County is scheduled for June 15. MCPS staff members have said they don’t expect the year to be extended due to the pandemic.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 47 states had made the call to close schools until at least the fall.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam closed Virginia schools for the year in March, and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser followed suit on April 17 — the same day Maryland officials extended the state’s school closures into May.

School buildings across the state have been closed since March 16, pushing learning online.

On March 25, Salmon announced schools would remain closed through April 24. At the time, Gov. Larry Hogan said it was “somewhat aspirational,” signaling the closures could last longer.

On April 17, Salmon again extended the closures, this time until May 15, saying she felt it was best to “make strategic and incremental” decisions.

On Wednesday, Salmon extended the closures until the end of the 2019-20 school year. She has said previously that school districts must prepare for even longer disruptions or multiple stints of remote learning if there are several waves of infection.

The announcement confirms what local leaders expected and were planning for. On several occasions, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith had said he didn’t expect students to return to classes this year, but was waiting on direction from the state.

In a message to community members Wednesday, Smith wrote that school officials “strongly believe this is the right decision for the safety and well-being of Maryland students and their families.

“While this news is not unexpected, it doesn’t diminish the sadness and disappointment that many of us are feeling because we won’t be together in schools to learn and work together; participate in athletic and arts events; and attend end-of-the-year celebrations and graduations,” Smith wrote.

Smith said community members can expect more information this weekend regarding remote learning, graduation and proms.

When schools reopen, Salmon and local health officials cautioned on Wednesday that it likely won’t be “business as usual.”

State officials are developing “Maryland Together: Recovery Plan for Education,” Salmon said, which will provide guidance to each of the state’s school systems about precautions it should take to promote social distancing.

Measures could include students attending classes on alternating days or weeks, with remote learning continuing while they’re not physically in school, Salmon said. Schools could also choose to first bring back students who need additional help, like special education students and English language learners.

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said he believes how schools function will depend greatly on “what happens between now and then.” Precautions and social distancing would look different if a vaccine has been developed, for example, Gayles said.

Asked if he thought crowding issues at many Montgomery County schools would prolong school closures, Gayles said “it forces us to look at some of the long-standing issues that predated COVID-19, like overcrowding in some of our schools.”

Gayles said he met with MCPS officials on Tuesday to discuss preliminary ideas for precautions it might take when schools reopen, but declined to provide more information.

After two weeks of emergency closures in March, during which there were no classes, MCPS began its online learning on March 30.

Teachers use online video conferencing platforms to host live class lessons and virtual “office hours” to provide additional help for students. Students complete assignments throughout the week and can also get paper packets of lessons.

In previous interviews with Bethesda Beat, school leaders have expressed concern about the effect of extended school closures on students’ learning, particularly those who require special education services or are English language learners.

The risk of learning loss in those student populations is great, according to national education researchers, which could widen the local achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.

A recent estimate of students’ potential learning losses by the nonprofit NWEA suggested extended school closures could have the most dramatic impact on students’ math proficiency.

The report says “students may return in fall 2020 with less than 50% of typical learning gains, and, in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would expect in this subject under normal conditions.”

In an interview in March, Smith said he hopes MCPS’ “interlocking goals of excellence and equity” would offset any potential widening of the achievement gap.

“We keep those balanced all the time and it’s my goal that any effect would be mitigated by the work we do as a school system,” Smith said.

To help ease pressure on students and ensure equity, MCPS has scrapped letter grades for the fourth quarter, instead opting for a pass/incomplete scale.

Students will earn a passing grade if they meet two of four criteria:

• completing at least 50% of assignments

• demonstrating an understanding of content, measured by graded assignments

• consistently participating in online classes or communicating with teachers

• a teacher’s professional judgment based on the context of a student’s specific circumstances caused by the pandemic.

A decision about how the school district will calculate the second-semester grade — made up of the third and fourth quarters — has not yet been made. At a school board meeting last month, MCPS staff members recommended that the semester grade also be a pass/incomplete scale.

The school board is scheduled to discuss and take final action on the recommendation on Tuesday.

Elementary students will not receive a grade for the fourth quarter.

MCPS is also still determining how to celebrate high school seniors’ graduation. A survey was administered to students offering three choices: virtual ceremonies in May or June; in-person graduations in late July; and virtual graduations in May or June and in-person ceremonies later in the summer.

MCPS officials said there “are a lot of logistics” to think through about each option and in-person ceremonies “would only be possible if the governor lifts the ban on mass gatherings.”

Currently, no more than 10 people are allowed to congregate, according to an executive order from Hogan to promote social distancing.

The results of the MCPS survey have not yet been released.

Salmon reiterated on Wednesday that decisions about commencement are made by local school boards, but “I have reminded superintendents that however they choose to honor” graduates,” they must “comply with the governor’s executive order.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.

To see a timeline of major coronavirus developments in Maryland and Montgomery County, click here.