Prior to the Maryland State Board of Education’s June 23 meeting, MSEA President Cheryl Bost sent the following letter to the State Board.
Dear Brigadier General Sumpter and Members of the Maryland State Board of Education,
These are challenging times, as we navigate an ongoing pandemic and the renewed urgency to eradicate institutional racism and put an end to the senseless murders of Black Americans and the repeated traumatization of Black communities. This is a critical time for our country, for our students, for all of us as leaders, and for the direction of public education.
Our state was thrust into crisis learning on March 16, and we recognize the difficulty of the necessary decision to close schools for even two weeks let alone the remainder of the school year. At a recent briefing with the House Appropriations and Ways and Means Committees, I noted several things state officials and educators did right during the closure, including critical work from food service providers, custodians, and IT employees, along with the work of teachers, counselors, nurses, administrators, and more to conduct distance learning to the best of their ability. The State Board did its part as well. Even though some were unnecessarily late, the many waivers you approved were important to allow school superintendents, administrators, educators, and students to focus on instruction and learning instead of testing, certification requirements, grading, etc.
As we look back over the last few months, we can also identify areas of concern. Reinforcing what was already apparent from the three years of the Kirwan Commission work, immediately after distance learning rolled out it was evident that students living in poverty both in rural and urban settings were at a severe disadvantage. What has been referred to as the digital divide quickly became more of a digital Grand Canyon. Numerous students, families, and even educators were without connectivity, technology like tablets or laptops, or the educational background to be able to access the tools being used to provide students continuity of learning. The unacceptable fact about this digital divide is that it’s been known and not addressed. Even the report shared at the last state board meeting tracking what was considered engagement shows the educational system during crisis distance learning failed too many students. We all know that distance learning will never replace the quality of in-person learning but picking up a packet of lessons never to receive feedback or have interaction with an educator or logging in once or twice is not education and we should not lull ourselves into believing otherwise.
In recent polling conducted by GBAO Strategies on behalf of MSEA, educators and parents identified serious concerns about digital learning. Educators’ largest concerns are lack of student motivation to complete work, lack of participation in learning opportunities, not having reliable internet, and the negative impact on student mental health. Parents identified serious concerns with students missing out on socialization with other students, missing seeing their teachers in person, and missing out on extracurricular activities. These concerns must be addressed, and efforts taken to help remedy as we look to reopen schools.
These educational inequities and concerns were compounded as students were trying to learn in homes experiencing family members becoming ill or dying of COVID-19, unemployment like we haven’t experienced since the Great Depression, and watching the murder of George Floyd and others over and over again through all forms of media. Students, families, and educators are faced with anxiety, trauma, and great fear of uncertainty.
Educators and parents are concerned. I am concerned and I suspect all of you are as well.
A specific area of common ground that I want to point out is how the decision to reopen schools must be based on science as the health and safety of students, families, and educators must be the top priority. Voters and educators in our recent polling, at 87% and 93% respectively, want reopening requirements to include decreased class sizes to help with social distancing. Additionally, 85% of voters and 87% of educators want additional mental health staff to address the needs of students and educators. All of these concerns and many others that were identified by voters and educators as much more concerning at high-poverty schools. We must not simply agree that this is a problem but have a plan to actually fix it and address these priority concerns.
The newly released Maryland reopening plan is lacking in so many areas and punts on too many decisions. The most glaring issue with the state plan is related to equity. Despite how equity was identified in the last stakeholder call as needed to be the basis for the entire plan, the latest iteration fails to adequately address the inequities that are clearly leaving too many students behind. It fails to identify or advocate for the funding needed to prepare our buildings and operations to maintain a high level of safety during a pandemic. It fails to tackle the staffing and resources necessary to remedy inequities and institutional racism. And while it recognizes the need to alleviate trauma concerns, there is no plan or funding source for how that will actually be done.
The state plan appears to have sections written by various departments within MSDE with minimal outside additions or local voices, yet the true responsibility and accountability is left to each local district and individual superintendents, principals, and educators. True inclusion and collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders instead of simply reacting to work by a handful of state department employees could have brought about a better plan. You as a state board must do better and expect better from the department charged with the oversight of Maryland’s public education system.
We have a great opportunity to utilize the reopening of Maryland schools to truly transform our school system and to work to break down the structural and institutional racism barriers that for too long have not provided a quality education for students of color. To do anything less is a disservice to our students now and in the future. Members of this board have been presented report after report outlining glaring barriers and treatment to students of color and students living in poverty. Simply identifying disparities in a presentation or having 30,000-foot conversations without any plan, to actually address the known disparities is not an effective strategy for change. The inequities remain and, in many cases, grow. Has the board ever engaged in a conversation (not presentations) with stakeholders representing educators, administrators, students, or parents about the structural barriers that disadvantage students of color? Has the board joined with stakeholders to have a conversation about what inequities exist and what it would take at all levels to remedy them? Has the board ever examined how history is being taught in schools to ensure ethnic and cultural diversity is part of texts and educators are properly trained to deliver a diverse curriculum? These are just a few of the conversations and examinations that should begin and be ongoing. These would at least signal to education stakeholders and communities that the state board and MSDE are real partners in this necessary work, and ultimately could be an early step on the pathway to real, positive change.
We are still in this moment together. Let’s do the work together to make a difference during these challenging times so all students receive the public education they deserve. MSEA in no way is saying we have all of the answers, but we commit to working together to fundamentally improve our schools, so all students succeed and grow to be socially and emotionally strong, empathetic, and conscientious citizens in addition to reaching the highest academic success. This transformation has short-, mid-, and long-term work to be done. To get started, we ask the state board to:
We have all said, and all know, that we are in uncharted territory. We must challenge ourselves and our institutions to do more for our students so that we come out of these multiple crises a stronger school system, stronger state, and stronger country. MSEA will continue to push ourselves to do this hard work at the state and local levels; and we know that our students will be the better for it if and when the state board takes the steps outlined above.