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Carroll County Board of Education candidates state their case for election during video forum

The four Carroll County Board of Education candidates took to Zoom for a video conference call Thursday, a forum hosted by the Finksburg Planning And Citizens Council, and despite some technology challenges they spoke to online viewers about why they feel they’re the right person for the position.

Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert, and Donna Sivigny are seeking two BOE spots in this year’s general election. Herbert is the current vice president of the board, while Sivigny is president. Harrison served on the board from 2008-18, and Brooks is going after a spot as a newcomer, but said she’s a longtime volunteer in Carroll County Public Schools and has served on numerous leadership boards.

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The candidates, who will also participate in a televised forum Tuesday night, Sept. 29, were given five prepared questions and had a limited amount of time in which to answer. Here is some of what each candidate said during the video conference call, which is available for viewing on YouTube.

1. Due to COVID-19, what is your plan or recommendation for in-person instruction for the remainder of 2020 leading into 2021?

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Herbert went first and said it’s important for school officials to maintain their tracking of metrics and data that deal with COVID-19. Carroll County cannot open fully until Gov. Larry Hogan loosens more restrictions under Stage Three of his reopening plan, Herbert said.

“I really do believe, right now, there will be a combination of virtual and hybrid for a while,” she said, noting that she feels there’s nothing that replaces having a teacher in a classroom face-to-face with students.

Sivigny agreed and said in-person instruction is the best model, “especially for our special needs and our elementary students.” The school board wanted to get students back in-person as quickly as possible, Sivigny said, but only when it was safe to do so for both students and staff.

Brooks said she appreciates the board’s hybrid model strategy, and would like to add a few things as a recommendation for the future. Brooks wondered if Carroll has the ability to make certain schools become full in-person learning center where students have been otherwise under-served amid the pandemic.

“Can we get the rest of the population to say that they want to stay virtual, so that these students have the opportunity to be in the classroom?” Brooks said.

Harrison, who had technical difficulties in the early stages of the conference call, said she’s concerned health will still be a major factor during the hybrid learning model.

“I was very happy to see that we started staying home, but I think we should be very careful with ... flu season coming up,” Harrison said. “I do have faith in the school system that they would gradually go into it. To me the most important thing is to keep the students safe and healthy.”

Carroll County Board of Education candidates in the 2020 general election, from left, Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert and Donna Sivigny.
Carroll County Board of Education candidates in the 2020 general election, from left, Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert and Donna Sivigny. (Courtesy Photo)

2. What is your position on virtual teaching, and how can you measure teaching and learning effectiveness?

Sivigny said virtual teaching is great, but the learning side of it can still pose a challenge for many students. “It certainly has a place moving forward,” she said. Sivigny said she can envision a virtual platform that could help eliminate certain aspects of education such as being off on snow days.

Brooks said she’s a “huge advocate” of virtual learning, and her two children in the school system have had a positive experience so far because of standout teachers. She said she hopes an enhancing virtual learning platform can be leveraged going forward, particularly for any students that may need to be out of school.

Herbert praised CCPS for being leaders for virtual learning back in the spring, while Harrison said she was pleased to see so many students getting their educational needs met in the early stages of the pandemic.

“I have a grandson who was home ... and it was very successful for him,” Harrison said. “And that tells me that we’re trying to reach every child. I think we’ve learned a great lesson about some of the things we’re doing and some of the things we need to do in the future.”

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3. Beyond COVID-19, what is the biggest challenge facing Carroll County Public Schools?

Sivigny pointed to developing a recovery plan that would help get students to their appropriate academic level, along with monitoring their social and emotional levels at the same time. “This will need to be done at the individual student level, and it will be the key to address formal plans that we can execute and monitor for our kids,” she said.

Herbert said one of the bigger challenges is fighting the inequities that many students have faced, from accessing technology or internet, to those with special needs receiving the proper services, to the large number of kids who aren’t getting hands-on education. “This is all going to be catch-up for us, the entire year and probably years after,” Herbert said.

Brooks said diversity and inclusion have been a challenge across the board, and that mental health needs to be looked at more closely. “I think that this year, given the COVID crisis here, we’ve done a lot better with looking at mental health,” Brooks said “I’ve seen teachers who are saying, you know, let’s be patient, let’s be flexible, let’s learn. This is something that I think we need to be teaching children at a very young age.”

Meanwhile, Harrison said students getting more opportunities to improve has been a challenge amid the pandemic. “We need to do all we can to do help make sure that we have a higher expectation for all of the kids,” she said.

Carroll County BOE meeting
(Courtesy photo/screenshot)

4. What do you see are the priorities for current and future school budgets?

Herbert said there’s a growing need for special education teachers across Carroll, but even with a five-year budget prepared it’s unclear as to what monies will be available for the county’s wish list.

“We did not include COVID in our budget in any way, shape, or size,” she said. “So, that’s what we’ve got to do with this budget.”

Brooks said while nobody planned for the coronavirus pandemic, there still needs to be a focus on how to spend for technology. She also said there should be a focus on adding school counselors, particularly at the elementary level. Brooks called it a “top priority.”

Harrison said she’s concerned about what 2021 might look like in fiscal terms.

“I think it’s going to be pretty difficult ... it’s a number of things we’ve never had to do before just to maintain our standards and keep our buildings healthy and clean,” she said. “We’re going to have to really trim back the budget, maybe, a little bit, so that we can.”

Sivigny said she thinks the budget may be the second-biggest challenge, after getting students on track academically.

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“We’re definitely going to have to deal with the ramifications of COVID and in the impact that that’s had on our budget,” she said. Sivigny said she thought the capital budget was in good shape, however, and credited the county for breaking ground on the tech center expansion project, as well as the new East Middle School.

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Also, Sivigny said she was proud the county has provided “solid raises for our employees in each of the last four years. And we’re going to continue to strive to do that. It’s going to be a very tough balancing act."

5. What would you see as the new normal in education going forward?

The candidates agreed virtual learning is likely here to stay, at least for the near future. Brooks said she’d like to see the virtual learning taking place through the county versus through any homeschool associations.

“That way you know that they’re getting the county curriculum,” she said.

Harrison said she sees a new normal where snow days are a thing of the past because of the technology being used.

“I think that we’re going to see a lot of difference in the way that we teach different courses to reach the kids that we weren’t reaching before,” she said.

“I’m a firm believer in the traditional model for education, but with every crisis you have to look for the silver linings,” Sivigny said. “It’s a lot easier to stay home if they have access to virtual content. ... Once we get past these scary times, there are actually going to be very exciting times.”

Herbert said Carroll County will get back to full in-person teaching at some point, but the need for virtual is present and understood.

“I think we’re learning a lot from this,” she said. “We’re still going to keep on learning more. The new normal is going to be a combination.”

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