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Carroll County Board of Education special meeting focuses on funding, distance learning amid coronavirus crisis

In a special Board of Education meeting Wednesday morning, board members and Carroll County Public Schools staff touched on some budget questions and discussed the distance learning efforts that started this week as a result of schools being closed due to the coronavirus.

At this point, staff who work with operations don’t think CCPS will need to dip into its fund balance to cover costs of this school year. The coronavirus response has caused more spending in some areas and savings in others. Staff may ask the Board to move funds from one area of the budget to another, but they don’t expect to exceed this year’s budget and dip into their rainy day fund, Chief Financial Officer Christopher Hartlove said.

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The only issue would be if the state Department of Education directs the school districts to extend the school year. For now, CCPS expects there will be some costs associated with getting students caught up on learning, but it is too early for specifics.

Answeres to questions about next year’s budget remain less certain as local governments are expecting lower revenues because of the drop in interest rates and other consequences of the coronavirus crisis.

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Carroll County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, who is the Board of Education’s nonvoting member, said Wednesday there are a lot of unknowns but it is not time to go into “panic mode” yet. This was to be the first of five years that CCPS budgeted under a presumed “smoothing” of funding intended to give the parties more predictability year to year about the county’s contribution to school funding.

Frazier said he is not in favor of cutting the county’s funding number down from what they had expressed previously, but was only speaking as one commissioner of five.

The meeting Wednesday was conducted via livestream with Board members and staff chiming in via video or phone call. Despite one technical hiccup during the vote to approve the previous meeting’s minutes, Superintendent Steve Lockard said at the end that it seemed to be a viable way to conduct meetings until the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

The format does not however, allow for the public to participate live and give comments. Board President Donna Sivigny said they were still very interested in hearing feedback from the community through emails.

Many board members throughout the meeting praised faculty and staff for working to meet “unprecedented” times for the school system. Lockard said he understood many CCPS employees were part of the “massive undertaking” while taking care of their own loved ones and thanked them, too.

“I’m so proud to be part of the community that is stepping up," Sivigny said.

Chief of Schools Cindy McCabe gave updates on the packets and workbooks that will go to students with total or partial inability to access the internet.

Workbooks that follow Common Core curriculum standards for the main subject areas were ordered from a vendor Tuesday and will be shipping out to families. Lockard stressed that the school system is valuing flexibility and would allow families to let the workbooks sit for several days if they wanted to in order to ensure that any possible virus on the surfaces had died.

McCabe said curriculum staff have been working on packets for high school students because of the variety of courses available at that level.

For families that have requested to borrow a laptop from CCPS, she said she believes there will be enough to meet the need in the community. The school system is working to re-image and clean the devices before they are delivered through a process with the “least amount of human to human contact as we can give our families."

“The whole key to this is flexibility,” Lockard said. 'These are unbelievable times so we have to be flexible."

Board members Marsha Herbert and Tara Battaglia said they had had some technical difficulties, but overall had been impressed by the level of communication from teachers of their grandchildren and children, respectively who are in CCPS. Herbert also said in the future it would give them tools for snow days.

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Sivigny commented about how impressive it was that they were able to put in place some chunks of a virtual learning plan that was purposely designed to be a slow roll-out over two to three years, and several agreed.

Lockard said however that it was important to recognize that there would be gaps for many students, especially for special education students and English learners. The new system cannot replace classroom instruction, even as they do the best they can to keep learning going. Every household does not have the same resources to support students, he said.

Ken Kiler asked if staff could speak to parent fears about students falling behind.

McCabe said one thing to remember was that everyone is in the same boat. For curriculum staff in CCPS, the first “big lift” was moving curriculum online and to paper formats. The next one will be figuring out how to catch students up on particular content they need once they know how long the closures will last.

Sivigny asked if staff could give examples of what an ideal day will look like for students with various types of access.

McCabe said they are staying “away from giving parents a formula because we understand that parents are in very different situations at home.” For one example parents may be working from home and unable to let a student use a computer while a parent is working.

The goal is to be flexible about what a student’s work week can look like, whether that is working a little every day or loading work on certain days of the week. Teachers have established office hours during set parts of the days.

Chief of Operations Jonathan O’Neal gave an update that CCPS is continuing to manage accounts and pay bills, and the the most recent payroll went through without issue. CCPS continues to employ all hourly employees in their employee bargaining groups, but not some others, such as day-to-day substitute teachers.

He recognized many areas of staff, such as Supervisor of School Security and Emergency Management Duane Williams who is the main point of contact for emergency preparedness as CCPS tries to be “the best possible partners we can be because this is obviously much bigger than a Carroll County Public Schools Issue” and Supervisor of Health Services Filipa Gomes, who is in contact with the health department.

Food Services has been “a glowing success really from the first second,” providing meals for an average of 1,000 children a day, three meals a day under the direction of Karen Sarno and her team. They hope to expand the program to more sites if possible. And the technology Help Desk who are not only serving employees now but parents and teachers.

In closing, Lockard said, “We miss our kids, we miss our teachers, we miss opening our doors everyday and being that hub in our community."

Links to the video recording of the meeting and the FAQ document for distance learning are available through carrollk12.org. The next Board of Education meeting will be livestreamed Wednesday, April 8 at 5 p.m.

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