The Howard County Public School System will start the 2020-21 academic year with 100% virtual instruction through at least January due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Board of Education approved the plan during its Thursday meeting to have online learning for the first and second quarters of the school year, which end Jan. 28.
“My recommendation is to focus all of our energies and resources to implementing the best virtual solution possible for the start of the school year,” schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said Thursday. “This allows us to focus all our energies on implementing a fully virtual model and more fully vet a hybrid model.”
In a survey by the school system, students, staff and parents preferred a hybrid model over fully in-person or fully online models. The completely virtual model was the least preferred option of the thousands of students and parents who completed the survey. Martirano said he understands a completely remote model may not be what some in the community wanted, but the decision is focused on the safety of students and staff.
“I have great faith in the efforts of our ... staff to follow stringent guidelines and do everything in their power to create and maintain a safe and healthy environment,” Martirano said. “However, even with their extraordinary efforts, it is not guaranteed that COVID-19 won’t infiltrate our schools and offices and be spread between students and staff. In fact, I believe that most of us could agree that an outbreak on some level would be likely.”
Throughout the first five months of the academic year, the school system will develop hybrid and in-person learning models to possibly implement later in the year.
“We don’t know what October, November or next February will look like, so we need to focus on the task immediately in front of us, which is starting the school year on Sept. 8,” Martirano said. “We will continue to reevaluate the constantly evolving situation and begin to move to a hybrid or in-person model as we are able to do so. Attempting to make those decisions now for months in advance is premature.”
The decision to start the year online, which passed 6-1 with member Christina Delmont-Small voting against, follows what other school systems in the area are choosing.
In the last week, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have all decided on a fully online model to begin the school year. Harford and Prince George’s counties are learning remotely through the first two quarters, while Montgomery plans to have a virtual-only model that will last two to four weeks before the first wave of students enters the building on a rotational basis.
In his recommendation, Martirano said multiple statistics influenced the school system’s decision to request an online start. About 35% to 45% of the school system’s nearly 59,000 students have one or more medical diagnoses, while 15% to 20% of students have a chronic health condition and could be at higher risk if they contract COVID-19, he said. Approximately 11% of the school system’s staff are age 60 or older, he said, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites as the age of higher risk.
“As a member of this board, I do not want to hold the responsibility for any child, any staff person or any parent who may get COVID. I can’t carry that as an individual,” Board of Education Chairperson Mavis Ellis said. “The only way we know that we can maintain the safety of our students and staff is for them not to come into our buildings at this time, until there is a vaccine or something that will protect them.”
Martirano’s initial recommendation to the board was for a fully online model through only the first quarter of the school year, which is set to end Nov. 6. Member Jen Mallo then motioned to increase the online start to two quarters. She raised concerns about building and classroom logistics, personal protective equipment and financial concerns as reasons to extend the virtual start to January.
“The science and the logistics necessitate us to give the [administrators] some time to come up with plans and give the community some stability of being virtual until Jan. 28,” Mallo said.
The decision to have online learning for the first half of the year comes a week after the board approved three measures to prepare for a fully virtual model.
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The start of the 2020-21 academic year was pushed back two weeks from Aug. 25 to Sept. 8, one day after Labor Day. The board also approved a $2.5 million purchase of 6,500 Chromebook laptops, bringing the total number of devices to 46,500 for the school system. The last change was a shift to a semester-based model with four classes in each semester for middle and high school students.
After schools closed March 13, the Howard County school system took more than a month to launch its virtual learning program. That program was criticized by some as not having enough content instruction. A majority of parents responded in the school system’s survey that they prefer more instruction and more live meetings if an online model were to be chosen for the fall, which Martirano said will be the case.
“Though instruction will occur virtually, it will differ from the spring continuity of learning solution and [will] more closely resemble the traditional levels of rigorous instruction that we have provided so well for so many years,” Martirano said.
As the only vote against, Delmont-Small raised concerns about communities that can be negatively influenced by the decision to have a fully virtual model for the first five months of the academic year.
“I have a problem with this. I believe the parental choice is very important, and I’m going to be very consistent in advocating for our parents to have a choice,” Delmont-Small said. “I am especially concerned ... about the impact of our students receiving special education services and the impact on the achievement gap.”
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.