By Mark Gray
AFRO Staff Writer

Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) announced the school year will utilize virtual learning this August, and, while they miss in-person lessons, teachers and staff have said they want to return to their buildings to interact with their students in a face to face learning environment only if they are safe. Theresa Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association (PGCEA) said the risks of trying to open on time in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic would be irresponsible especially without guidance from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

In a nationally televised interview on CNN, DeVos said that schools should be prepared to open on time so parents could get back to work and help restart the economy, which echoed the sentiments of President Donald J. Trump. The president continues to maintain the position, which defies that of most health experts who are hoping educators around the country operate cautiously when developing their plans for reopening.

Prince George’s County Educators Association President Theresa Dudley called Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ statements regarding reopening schools for in-person learning “idiotic,” and said the safety of the staff and students should be the priority. (Courtesy Photo)

However, Secretary DeVos never offered any guidance on a working model to start the school year.  She spent most of the interview with CNN’s Dana Bash consistently evading the question of what her specific plan was for students returning to school. DeVos shifted the responsibility to local school systems to adjust for health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control.

“You don’t anticipate something that hasn’t happened,” DeVos said. 

That struck a chord with the leader of the teacher’s union for Maryland’s largest school system.

“It was an absolutely idiotic statement. All of our teachers and staff would love to be back in the classroom and with our students,” Dudley told the {AFRO}.  “We miss the human interaction with one another and the kids, but it’s hard to practice social distancing in a classroom.”

Dudley represents a system where 25 percent of it’s staff is 55 or older, which puts them in a high risk category for the coronavirus.  The County was one of the first in the state to lose members of its staff as two employees at Northwestern High School died last spring before schools were shut down for on campus learning. 

Prince George’s County leads Maryland in the number of COVID-19 cases. 

“It’s not a game to educators in Prince George’s County. The opening has to be done safely,” Dudley said.  “We’re smart enough to know that nobody wants to die.”

Instead of admonishing local school district leaders around the country Dudley feels that the Trump administration and Congress should make all the necessary tools available for distance learning to all students.  The County personifies the disparity of resources facing the families on various ends of the socio-economic spectrum and how it impedes their prospects for success.

Students from cities such as Bowie, Fort Washington and Mitchellville have greater accessibility to the resources needed to succeed outside the conventional classroom setting.  However, many of their counterparts from towns like Seat Pleasant, Suitland or Capitol Heights don’t have access to high speed Internet or personal computers that would hamper their academic progress.

“As an American we should be appalled by statements,” Dudley said.  “Tell her boss to make sure all students have equal access to the Internet and computers instead of trying to force them back into classrooms when they may not be safe.”

PGCPS announced its virtual learning plans will begin on August 31 and students will have instruction  through at least January 29 via online classes as the coronavirus pandemic continues, according to a statement. Teachers will have the option whether they want to be in classrooms or teach remotely.

In early December, PGCPS will decide whether to extend the virtual learning plans or shift to a combination of in person and online classes next spring.  The system has also cancelled fall sports activities and is exploring the option of playing fall and spring sports during the same season in early 2021.

PGCPS CEO Dr. Monica Goldson promised the school system would to continue supporting families, including with meals, and will address how they will support students from low-income families and with special needs next week.