Letter from MSEA President Cheryl Bost to the State Board of Education

“Will you do the right and sensible thing for the students and educators of Maryland?”

August 31, 2020

Dear President Crawford and Members of the State Board of Education,

Today, after months of preparation, many students are starting what they, their parents, educators, and district officials can only describe as a first day filled with hope and anxiety. The remaining Maryland students will begin their first-ever virtual start to a school year by September 8. Educators are doing their best to make these challenging times of a pandemic and widespread social unrest feel somewhat normal for students.

I have heard and seen a collaboration among educators like I’ve never witnessed before as a teacher. Everyone has been taking professional development courses on virtual platforms; they are setting up virtual classrooms in their kitchens, bedrooms, and even closets. Educators are trying to get students devices and figuring out connectivity issues. Many are figuring out how they will teach while helping their own children complete their virtual lessons and schoolwork.

In the last few weeks, I’ve finally seen some excitement spreading among educators and administrators who have sent postcards to students they’ve never met trying to make them feel welcome. Many have sent books and materials home in welcome packages to students, while others are mentoring brand-new teachers who missed out on their student internships. This is all after school districts have been hard at work trying to build schedules, purchase devices and PPE that are back ordered, retrofit front offices with plexiglass, figure out meal distribution, communicate with parents, and meet the 13 requirements laid out in the Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education approved by you.

Educators’ excitement was building only to have the wind completely knocked out of their sails by Governor Hogan’s and Dr. Salmon’s comments at their press conference on Thursday. After closely following and being involved in regular discussions about how to protect local students and staff, educators were floored by accusations that districts failed to do the hard work to get students back into a hybrid model at some point this year, and certainly as soon as it is safe to do so. And for nearly all, this was the first time they heard of Dr. Salmon’s proposed new scheduling requirements. In the last few days, I have heard personally from hundreds of educators who feel totally disrespected and deflated. I even know of others who have decided to retire and resign just in the last couple days, some of whom would have been first-year teachers. Most educators will tell you they are working harder now than they ever have before. So please do not mistake their disappointment and frustration as a lack of willingness to do everything in their power to educate the students they teach and dedicate countless hours and resources to their students each day, year after year. No, their disappointment and frustration are absolutely because Dr. Salmon and the state department had all summer to develop and share scheduling requirements, as are currently presented. In a mid-July press conference with Gov. Hogan, Dr. Salmon read out loud the 13 requirements for local plans and she and Gov. Hogan stated several times that reopening plans were to be determined at the local level in each district. Each district trusted these statements—why wouldn’t they? There was no suggestion of an alternative proposal or new timeline. And so each district worked hard; they held numerous meetings, built stakeholder teams, contemplated virtual and hybrid schedules and needs, considered what was safest and best for their students, educators, and communities, and many made numerous revisions before finally turning in to MSDE their approved local reopening plans on August 14.

Yet, only six workdays after this submission deadline Dr. Salmon asked you to add a sizeable new requirement that had never been shared with districts in their planning. And now just five days later, that requirement has grown in scale and in most cases will require districts to go back to the drawing board to redesign schedules and communicate these new changes to educators, parents, and students—all of whom have worked hard to integrate the existing schedules into the daily juggling act that is working and learning from home during a pandemic.

Have any of you ever tried to set a school schedule for 300 students and educators? What about 1,000 or 2,000 students? It takes weeks and sometimes months to figure out what class each student should be in or the individual assistance that they need at any given time of the day; it takes countless hours to communicate these changes to families and respond to their concerns. Schedules and the far-reaching impact of schedules do not just happen overnight or within 20 days. Demanding that schools redo nearly all of their scheduling just a few weeks into the year diverts a tremendous amount of time while at the same time administrators are trying to juggle a virtual start and transitioning to a hybrid model. Working to ensure students and educators have devices and connectivity, meals are distributed, and trying to prepare to meet all health and safety guidelines (securing PPE, abiding by social distancing, accounting for students who elect to remain virtual, and figuring out staffing when many educators have underlying health conditions). There is a lot going on in the planning for instruction and learning to take place that no previous administrator or educator has ever encountered and getting it wrong could have dire consequences.  

Dr. Salmon’s proposal has completely demoralized educators across this state. Since an online petition urging the State Board to reject this proposal was launched on Sunday morning, more than 16,000 people have signed it and that number continues to grow.  Many of you have received emails from educators, parents, and concerned citizens about  the proposal that is now before you. Will you add to the demoralization of the very people you are sworn to protect and support, or will you show them you respect the work they have done and know that they are stepping up to a challenge that nobody has ever been asked to do before? Will you do the right and sensible thing for the students and educators of Maryland?

Will you add to the demoralization of the very people you are sworn to protect and support, or will you show them you respect the work they have done and know that they are stepping up to a challenge that nobody has ever been asked to do before?

— MSEA President Cheryl Bost

On behalf of 75,000 educators across Maryland, we are asking you to reject Dr. Salmon’s proposed grade level and school day schedule minimums. Instead we are asking you to substitute a more reasoned approach by taking these next steps:

These asks are doable and will allow the State Board to learn what happens as schools begin in this ever-changing time. These steps allow you to seek input from students, educators, and parents as to how the school year started. Districts will undoubtedly be making needed tweaks and analyzing their own current plans to make improvements. It also allows you to garner research on recommended screen time for students in each grade level. Additionally, it allows you to direct MSDE to assist schools in securing the items needed for both virtual and in-person learning if we’re ever to transition to a hybrid model. This advocacy must include helping to secure additional federal funds and guarding against any state funding cuts to public education.  

Finally, adopting a plan that takes the commonsense steps outlined above allows you to send a clear message of respect, compassion, and the willingness to hear and work with educators and district leaders across this state to do what is best for students.

Everyone wants to do what is best for students and provide the best educational opportunity for all students. I can assure you educators want the same thing and educators truly want to be in their classrooms and worksites with students and their colleagues, but only when it is safe to return. We’re going to get there and we’re going to make this the best possible year for students—so long as we can focus on what they need and on improving and adapting our craft. But we can’t do that with last-minute, unprompted directives that will cause confusion, chaos, and deep frustration among educators, parents, and students at a time when we can least afford it. As Mr. Crawford stated last Tuesday, issues and challenges will arise this year and it’s important to take the time to “provide a reasonable way forward.” We believe the recommendations presented and signed onto by thousands of citizens is a reasonable way forward.

We look forward to continued dialog with the State Board and an opportunity to be a part of discussions to help resolve upcoming issues and change challenges into opportunities for all public education stakeholders for the benefit of the children of Maryland.

Cheryl Bost

C:  Dr. Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools
Maryland PTA