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Howard County school board pushes back start of academic year by two weeks, mulls fall reopening plan

The Howard County Board of Education voted to push back the start of the 2020-2021 academic year while it considered different fall reopening plans amid the coronavirus pandemic during its meeting Thursday night.

Instead of starting Aug. 25, the first instructional day will be Sept. 8, one day after Labor Day. The first staff day will be Aug. 25.

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“If we’re going to look at different models, this gives parents enough time to learn about the models and for staff to prepare anything they need to,” said Scott Ruehl, the school system’s director of leadership development. “If we’re doing any restaffing or changing schedules or dealing with other conflicts, I think the feeling is giving us this additional two weeks really will help the preparation with the situation we’re in.”

The alteration is a reversal of the board’s decision in November to start two weeks before Labor Day. The changes to the calendar, which also include removing three days from spring break (April 2, 5 and 6), make the last day of school June 15, pending snow days.

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The board also discussed several measures related to reopening in September amid the pandemic. The school system provided data from thousands of surveys from students, staff and parents; options for virtual and hybrid models; and recommendations for different formats at the elementary and secondary levels. Despite the six-hour meeting, no votes were cast Thursday regarding the reopening model.

“We recognize this continues to be a very fluid and dynamic situation,” Superintendent Michael Martirano said. “The information discussed today could change as the pandemic and state guidance shift. It is everyone’s ultimate goal to have all students and staff return to a full, in-person instructional delivery model as soon as it is safe for us to do so.”

However, the board did approve multiple measures to help the school system choose which model to follow in the fall. In addition to pushing back the start of the school year, the board also approved a semester-based model with four classes in each semester for middle and high school students.

Currently, middle and high school students are not in a “semesterised” model, as the schools run on a seven-period schedule. A “4x4” model, however, isn’t uncommon for secondary students, and Martirano said the change would only be for the 2020-2021 academic year. The motion passed 7-1, with member Christina Delmont-Small voting against.

The board also approved purchasing 6,500 Chromebooks for $2.5 million.

Martirano said the board’s votes will allow the school system to enhance its potential reopening plans as well as develop a secure virtual model if that is the format chosen for the fall.

“The board has ... provided me with the tools, now with the adjustment of the calendars and the purchase of Chromebooks, to build a completely virtual environment if needed,” Martirano said. “If we’re leading with science and safety first, we need to make certain that the one secure model we have is a completely virtual [one].”

The decisions came amid several hours of discussion about a lengthy report from the school system about possible reopening plans. The report included information about two student options that would run simultaneously for the 2020-2021 school year.

The first option is a continuum that would begin with a fully online system, slowly transition to a hybrid model (with differences between elementary and secondary schools) and potentially return to normal operations, subject to state safety guidelines. The second option is a fully digital, opt-in model for students and staff, called the Digital Education Center, which would be a one-year commitment by students and staff.

After pushback from the board, though, Martirano said at the end of the meeting that it was not necessary for the board to vote on the Digital Education Center and that the school system would be “pulling off” that option. Multiple board members questioned the system’s effectiveness and whether it could create problems, such as with staffing.

The report also included information about how schools could look if a hybrid model is chosen. Students and staff would wear masks and socially distance as much as possible.

“I need way more information on safety and the ability of our staff, custodians [and] school nurses to be able to do all of this,” member Vicky Cutroneo said. “We can’t even supply tissues to our teachers. They’re always scrounging for supplies.”

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“[The board] will have to negotiate safe working conditions with us, so I just want that to be clear,” said Colleen Morris, president of the county teachers’ union.

In the proposed hybrid model, all students would begin their learning in an online environment before having opportunities to return to their assigned schools. Students in pre-kindergarten through third grade would learn virtually for one week before starting the hybrid model, while fourth and fifth grade students would participate in distance learning for three weeks. Middle schoolers and high schoolers would participate in school online for five and seven weeks, respectively, before entering the hybrid model.

After the beginning of virtual learning, elementary students would be in an A-day/B-day format with two days of in-person learning per week, while secondary students would participate in the semester-based model with in-person support.

“I want to reiterate that what we will be offering [online] in the fall will look very different than what was offered this spring,” Ruehl said during his presentation.

Throughout the meeting, board members raised concerns regarding the potential plans provided by the school system.

Chao Wu said it’s hard to move forward without knowing how many teachers will resign or retire if they’re asked to go back to the classroom. Delmont-Small and Cutroneo both expressed concerns regarding special education students in a virtual or hybrid format. Sabina Taj wondered if a fully online option for the whole school system, which wasn’t included in the report, is a more viable option.

The school system must send its reopening plans to the Maryland State Department of Education by Aug. 14. Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education, as laid out by the state, has 13 requirements for school districts in planning their reopening, including college and career readiness requirements, Individualized Education Program protocols, attendance tracking and safety protocols.

The Howard school board will have a work session July 16 to continue discussing fall reopening.

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