ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow local school districts and the state to establish a permanent virtual learning option for students when classrooms reopen for full time in-person instruction.

At least three bills aimed at making online schooling a mainstay for public school students who don’t want to return to school buildings after the pandemic are fighting for approval in the final week of the state’s 2021 legislative session.

While students already can and have been able for decades to opt to learn online through charter and private schools, there currently are no tuition-free programs for public schoolers in Maryland to access comprehensive virtual instruction.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican from Baltimore County and the sponsor of one of the bills, said “some students and families are truly thriving” in a virtual school setting. “It’s time for Maryland to offer this public school option,” she said.

More than 30 other states already have established fully online public schooling. Maryland is not one of them, but the pandemic has left educators across the state pushing to change that as many students showed over the past year that virtual schooling has benefited them more than being in a classroom.

Talbot County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kelly Griffith is among those who have questioned whether the state and her district should reconsider the one-size-fits-all approach to education that’s been in place for generations.

“We are learning that we need to really stop and think about education and a paradigm shift in education,” Griffith said. “This is a different generation, and we have some students that have excelled tremendously during this pandemic.”

About 70% of TCPS students have returned to in-person schooling since the district began offering it two days a week. The school system gave families the option to return to classrooms or stay remote amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Griffith and Szeliga both acknowledged that online learning is not for everyone and some students do not do well when they’re not learning in person. Szeliga has made clear her bill is simply enabling.

If signed into law, it would allow families, school districts and the state to decide whether to opt into, offer or establish virtual public schooling opportunities that would be paid for with state funds and cross-jurisdictionally available to students regardless of whether they live in the county that’s offering them.

Critics of Szeliga’s bill have said the legislation does not clearly outline how the online academic programs will be regulated and overseen. They also pointed to the importance of face-to-face schooling in children’s social development as a reason to prevent more students from learning behind a screen full time.

Republican Sen. Edward Reilly of Anne Arundel County, who cross-filed a bill identical to Szeliga’s in the Senate, said the bill is designed to “break down the artificial walls that are constructed in our educational system.”

“We have to find ways to tear down these silos so that students can take advantage of online learning,” Reilly said. He said he’s open to amendments to the legislation. “I’m not married to the bill. I’m married to the concept.”

None of the similarly intentioned bills has gotten extensive consideration in legislative committees thus far, and with just over one week left in session it will be tough for them to nudge past dozens of other bills battling for passage.

The Maryland General Assembly is set to adjourn until next January on April 12.

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