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Carroll County school board debates whether teachers should work from classrooms during virtual learning

Should Carroll County teachers be required to be in school buildings, instructing from their classrooms, while students are at home learning remotely this fall?

That question was debated at length Wednesday night during a marathon Board of Education meeting that stretched past six hours, and also included discussion about what a virtual school day will look like and students’ ability to access technology. Votes were also taken to ensure that at least 50% of school days will include “synchronous” learning and to eliminate the cost for breakfast and lunch for those on the reduced-price meal plan.

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The board voted to begin the school year virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, with some small groups participating in person but most students learning online only, at its July 29 meeting.

On Wednesday, several board members expressed the opinion that teachers should be doing their teaching from inside school buildings, beginning with the first day of school, Sept. 8. Currently, teachers are being “strongly encouraged” to do so by Carroll County Public Schools.

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“I’m sorry, school starts Sept. 8. There are distractions at home,” school board member Tara Battaglia said. “A teacher needs to give their 110% undivided attention to the students while they’re teaching them. That’s the job.”

Board President Donna Sivigny said they trust the teachers, but she wants to do what’s best for the kids. She also said not having students in class greatly reduces teachers’ risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“The safety issues have been taken away. They would inherently be socially distanced,” Sivigny said, noting that being in CCPS facilities would allow teachers to access materials, collaborate with other staff members, be monitored by administrators and to be in a better position to receive technology support.

School board member Kenneth Kiler said he felt strongly that teachers should be in the schools and that doing so would put the school system in better shape when it comes time for students to return to class. Vice President Marsha Herbert said teaching in front of a whiteboard is more professional than teaching in front of a refrigerator. She said most teachers are “champing at the bit” to return to the classroom anyway.

Patricia Dorsey was the lone board member to express disagreement.

“To me, it’s concerning during a pandemic to say you have to be in your building when we have gotten so many emails from people who have health concerns,” she said. “If they’re able to be there, fine, I’m just concerned ... some staff members who have some health concerns would be better off if they are working from home.”

Teresa McCulloh, president of the Carroll County Education Association teachers union, said via email Thursday that the union is opposed to requiring teachers to work from inside schools.

“The Carroll County Education Association is very concerned that a final decision has not been determined by the Board of Education and the vote from July 29 may be reversed, denying teachers the option of working from the safety of home. While many teachers may prefer to teach virtually from their classrooms, we strongly believe that it should continue to be an option,” McCulloh said. “In addition, waiting until the Board votes on August 26 puts an undo [sic] and additional burden on our teachers to decide what accommodations they may need to make for their own families, while also preparing for their classes and the school year ahead. We all want what is best for children, but our first priority is the health and safety of our staff and students.”

The board seemed to be moving toward a vote when school system attorney Edmund O’Meally pointed out that teachers with children of their own who will be in need of childcare because of schools being closed due to the pandemic will have the option of taking time off through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act.

“I’m afraid you might be forcing those people to take 12 weeks of leave and that’s going to be putting you in a quandary,” he said. “You’re going to have teachers who have small children saying, ‘What do I do? I can do both if I’m home, but I can’t do both if I’m required to go to school.‘ ”

O’Meally said qualified teachers taking the leave would be paid two-thirds of their salary, up to $200 per day with a maximum of $12,000 over the 12 weeks, but could also supplement that by using accrued leave. The board members recognized this could pose an issue, particularly in light of the difficulty in finding substitutes qualified to teach virtually.

“This changes everything,” Herbert said.

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Kiler wondered if they shouldn’t go ahead and act now to require it, in effect “starting the clock” on the 12 weeks given that teachers might just take the leave if students return twice a week in the second quarter under a hybrid model.

Instead of voting on the issue, the board decided to wait for results of a teacher survey that will ask specifically about their intentions if required to come back to school while still in a fully virtual model. They also talked about making it a requirement to teach from inside schools unless teachers obtain waivers to teach from home because of a medical reason or a childcare situation.

They planned to return to the discussion at the next meeting, Aug. 26, possibly voting on it then.

Anatomy of a virtual school day

Much of the rest of Wednesday’s meeting was spent talking about what a virtual school day will look like for students. Superintendent Steve Lockard and CCPS staff shared sample schedules for elementary, middle and high schools, and answered board members’ questions about how much synchronous learning will be going on.

Jason Anderson, chief academic, equity and accountability officer for CCPS, defined synchronous learning for the school board as a group of students learning at the same time — for example, a teacher presenting a lesson, and students following along remotely. Conversely, asynchronous learning is students getting the same material but at a different time from peers, such as an assignment in Google Classroom that students would get to when convenient.

Later in the meeting, the board unanimously voted that each school day must include at least 50% synchronous learning, with office hours and/or support not being counted as part of that.

Technology access

A considerable amount of time Wednesday was also devoted to students’ ability to access technology during virtual learning. CCPS staff said an intention form has been sent out to parents of all students, asking if a laptop will be needed and if internet access is an issue, noting that if the answer was “yes” to the latter question, personnel from CCPS technology services would be making house calls to try to figure out solutions.

Gary Davis, CCPS chief information officer, said a research project had mapped about 267 households in Carroll where some 420 students reside as being problem areas for broadband access, but the intention forms sent to parents would provide even more data.

The surveys were sent via email on Monday to parents of the school system’s approximately 25,400 students. By the start of the meeting, 13,518 had been completed. The school system will follow up with phone calls to any households who don’t complete the survey by the Aug. 18 deadline.

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Anderson said at the meeting, and Davis confirmed Thursday, that there is shortage of laptops is a worldwide issue and that CCPS has some 8,000 Google Chromebooks on order currently scheduled to arrive in November. However, those are strictly a part of a one-on-one high school technology initiative and even without those, he expects they will be able to serve all students who need laptops, as they have about 11,500 available to be loaned out.

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Many students will want to use their own laptops, and Davis tried to assure parents that they don’t need to run out a spend a fortune on them. “The reality is, for what we are doing, it just needs to be capable of running a browser and be connected to the internet,” Davis said.

School meals

At one point in the meeting, Kiler expressed concern for students who might go hungry because they aren’t going to school. Later, the board unanimously voted to make all meals free for students who would otherwise be paying reduced fees: 10 cents for breakfast and 20 cents for lunch.

Karen Sarno, CCPS supervisor of food services, said via email Thursday that in a normal operational year the revenue for reduced priced meals would be about $20,000 of the $7 million of revenue in the food service program. “Commencing the school year with virtual learning, we know this will not be a normal year and want to remove any barrier to participation for our families eligible for meal benefits,” she said.

Because students won’t be in school buildings to start the year, Sarno said they are in the process of defining the meal distribution system that will begin Sept. 8.

“Similar to the spring we will have schools designated for pick up and are working out the details of delivery options,” Sarno said. “These meals will be available to all students in daily or whole week bundles.”

After Wednesday’s vote, students eligible for free or reduced price meals will pay no fee. The meals are available for all students, however. Full-paying students will pay normal rates — breakfast is $1.50 for elementary school students and $1.75 for secondary students, whereas lunch is $2.50 for elementary, $2.75 for middle and $3 for high school.

“We will be doing community outreach once we have finalized pick-up sites and delivery procedures,” Sarno said.

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