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Carroll County Public Schools staff trying to prepare for the unexpected with hybrid learning set to resume Thursday

Carroll County Public Schools staff members are nearly set with their plans for resuming hybrid instruction on Thursday. Parents have been contacted to confirm whether their children will attend in-person, human resources has worked with principals to ensure courses and classes are ready to go and transportation has bus routes already established.

But it’s the unknown of the pandemic that makes creating a return plan an ongoing and challenging process that is far from fool-proof.

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The Carroll County Board of Education voted, 4-1, Monday night to return to hybrid learning. After nearly two months of virtual learning for most students, parents have the option to send their kids back to the classroom for two days a week.

The last time students were in hybrid learning, CCPS had difficulty staffing classrooms. Hundreds of teachers qualified for leave or to teach from their home, leaving other staff, even some from central office, to fill in or monitor classrooms (although some situations may have changed given that the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act expired Dec. 31).

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“Staffing continues to be a challenge,” Superintendent Steve Lockard said Tuesday.

Cindy McCabe, chief of schools, said on Tuesday the number of teachers available is still in “flux” with requests still coming in. They hope to have a number on Wednesday.

For students, McCabe said principals contacted parents a few weeks ago to see if they would send students back to hybrid or remain virtual if the learning model were to change.

“That’s what we’re using to plan,” she said.

At the time, between 60-63% of students agreed to participate in hybrid learning or 660 students less than last time, according to McCabe. About 70% of students indicated they would participate in the fall.

Lockard said there could be situations when staff cannot come to the building because they are quarantining, classes cannot meet and schools have to pause. It’s happened before and it adds to the challenge of creating a consistent program, he said.

The data dashboard that tracks the number of staff and students who have the virus or symptoms will be utilized again by Jan. 13, according to a letter sent to parents Tuesday. It was abandoned due to privacy concerns when students were in virtual learning or in schools in such small groups that they might’ve been identified.

Lockard said transportation has had the least changes needed. There may be fewer students to pick up than during the previous hybrid session, but the department is ready to go.

“Having had that experience once before is helpful,” he said.

Guidance used during the last go-around with hybrid learning instructed close contacts of a person with COVID-19 symptoms, or persons under investigation, to quarantine for 14 days.

McCabe said they were able to lessen it to 10 days with approval of the county health officer, Ed Singer. McCabe said Singer also signed off on allowing them to dismiss the quarantine of close contacts once the county’s positivity rate is below 5% and infection rates are 15 per 100,000 cases or less. According to health department data, those numbers stood at 35.79 and 8.02% as of Tuesday afternoon.

Lockard said they would still err on the side of caution when dealing with those who have symptoms and he asked for the public’s patience as staff work through the transition.

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Reacting to hybrid

Before the vote to return to hybrid, 26 people spoke during the citizen participation portion of the meeting, which lasted for some 90 minutes. Most were parents who advocated for hybrid learning to start. During their pleas for a reopened school, Singer, the teachers union and Commissioner Dennis Frazier, the non-voting member of the board, were often ridiculed and blamed for the months of virtual learning.

Singer, who recommended holding off on returning large groups of students, said the county is in the worst spot it’s been during this pandemic when it comes to cases, hospitalizations and death.

“My primary concern with schools reopening is that it will increase spread in the community, resulting in more cases, more strain on the hospital and healthcare system, and more deaths,” he said in an email on Tuesday. “I am concerned that even if we have small outbreaks and little spread in schools, students and staff can spread the virus to their extended families.”

He said now that students are back in school it’s critically important to continue best health practices like wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding large groups and indoor activities.

“Our students desperately need to return to a normal educational experience,” Board President Marsha Herbert said via email after the meeting. “Moving to the hybrid model is a very important step in that direction.”

Lora Rakowski, spokesperson for Maryland State Department of Education, said Karen Salmon, superintendent of schools, supports the safe return of students to the classroom “as soon as possible.”

“Local school systems are allowed, and encouraged, to reopen safely with social distancing and health precautions in place as outlined in the recovery plan and COVID-19 guidance,” she said via email.

Teresa McCulloh, president of Carroll County Education Association, said during citizen participation Monday night that it is the board that determines the instruction mode. The priority for CCEA is to advocate for the safety and quality education for all, she said.

She said on Tuesday the association is “dismayed” by the board’s decision to allow hybrid instruction despite the recommendation from Singer, Lockard and the information presented by Garrett Hoover, president and COO of Carroll Hospital, who noted the overflow at the hospital.

“We support those who want to return to in-person instruction and those who want to teach and learn virtually for their safety and the safety of their families,” McCulloh said in an email. “However, without adequate funding from the county and state for safety equipment, adequate PPE and sufficiently qualified staff, in-person learning will remain high risk.”

A few teachers spoke on Monday and advocated for the board to delay hybrid learning. Tony Roman, a social studies teacher at Manchester Valley, said “return to schools when the conditions are right. The conditions aren’t even close to right.”

He also noted a parent of a past student lost his mother, a clerical worker, to the virus. Carey Gaddis, communication officer for the school system, said the mother worked at North Carroll Middle School.

Frazier said Tuesday he wasn’t surprised by the vote but is “amazed” that those in support of in-person learning point to the private schools, which provide in-person learning, yet do not acknowledge their safety protocols. For example, he noted Gerstell Academy requires students to produce a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus.

Frazier said Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R- District 4, will attend the next several meetings. Frazier said he has not yet decided if he will continue attending.

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