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In forum, Carroll County Board of Education candidates talk mid-pandemic schooling, building conditions, more

Carroll County’s four-candidate race for two Board of Education seats made its television debut Tuesday night, giving those interested a chance to satisfy an election craving with something other than the first presidential debate of 2020.

Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert, and Donna Sivigny all participated in a candidates forum, hosted by the Community Media Center of Carroll County and the Times. Herbert is the current vice president of the board and Sivigny is president. Harrison previously served more than two terms on the board while Brooks is a longtime volunteer in Carroll County Public Schools and has served on numerous leadership boards.

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They answered 10 questions about current issues facing Carroll County Public Schools.

All four agreed CCPS did a solid job under challenging circumstances starting back in March, when the state closed public schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Brooks said nobody asked for the coronavirus to wreak havoc like it did, and praised the board for its hard work.

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Herbert said the board did the “best we can with the worst possible event.” Sivigny agreed and added that Carroll worked with little, if any, guidance from the state on how to navigate through the pandemic.

The candidates said schools will continue to have an online presence in the classroom, but they agreed getting back to in-person interactions is critical for adequate learning.

“It’s important to be in front of an instructor in the school,” Harrison said, and Herbert followed with, “You can’t beat that interaction.”

Sivigny praised teachers for their ability to help lay groundwork for the virtual learning plan, and said Carroll needs to enhance and develop the curriculum around it in the future.

Getting high school sports back on the school calendar is a hot topic, and the school board candidates agreed athletics is a vital part of the county’s curriculum. But Ed Singer, Carroll’s top health official, has voiced concerns about trying to allow high school sports at essentially the same time the county is planning to go to a hybrid learning model on Oct. 19.

Herbert is wary of athletes’ mental health while not being able to play amid the pandemic, and said, “Our students need this, very badly.”

Sivigny said she understands Singer’s reluctance to bring back an extracurricular activity right away, but she supports starting sports as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“There is a way to do it safely. I think it’s a very important aspect of school,” she said.

Harrison said she’s leery about health concerns and wants to be cautious, but if it can be done safely and responsibly “then I say go with it.”

When asked about frustration expressed by some teachers who have felt “disrespected” by the board with decisions made about teaching amid the pandemic, Sivigny said teachers and staff have been doing “yeoman’s work” during a challenging time.

“Folks are just very unhappy right now, it’s a very bad situation to be in,” Sivigny said. “But the conversations have to be had. We have to have that open dialogue. ... We do trust them, we do respect them. We can’t thank you enough, and I hope that message is coming across loud and clear.”

Brooks said the more than 200 teachers who are set to request leave when schools resume in hybrid form in a few weeks might speak to some of the disrespect felt by teachers from the board. Emotions are running high for everyone, Brooks said, because of working in such unknown times.

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Said Harrison: “We need to show the teachers a lot more respect and really listen to what they’re saying.”

Herbert said she feels the teachers' frustrations level with hybrid and virtual learning models working in tandem, but thought the criticism was unfair.

Another big topic focused on how the candidates would handle Carroll’s crowded or underutilized school buildings. Harrison said closing any more schools isn’t feasible, and Herbert said she won’t shutter any buildings while in office.

Sivigny said moving kids just to move kids is not a good idea, and that targeted redistricting is more viable in the future. Brooks agreed about targeted redistricting.

A question about the next aging building due for extensive renovations came one day before a scheduled public hearing on the Capital Improvement Program budget on Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Sivigny said the CIP is in pretty good shape and highlighted the progress with renovations at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center and the planned replacement of East Middle School.

Replacing systems inside other schools, roof improvements and HVAC maintenance, are some of the projects coming in the future, she said. Herbert agreed and said the board has a plan in place to address the next rotation of repairs for county schools, including Liberty and Westminster high schools and William Winchester Elementary.

Brooks noted that her daughter’s great-grandmother graduated from the building that currently houses East Middle and said Carroll needs to “make sure that we don’t let any other schools get to the point of East Middle School. ... Take care of the buildings that we have.”

Harrison said if elected she hopes to guide students back to where they were before COVID-19 affected their learning while also keeping up on the technology that has been used during the pandemic.

She and the other candidates agreed teachers need to continue to receive fair wages, and Herbert said Carroll needs to follow its strategic plan for success.

All the candidates talked about the need for more diversity in CCPS, discussed what being in a nonpartisan race means and how they will address student repercussions from the pandemic, including learning loss and mental and emotional health issues.

Sivigny summed up her priority if elected again in one word: Access. Finding enough resources for everyone across Carroll was already a struggle before the pandemic.

“It’s going to be a delicate balancing act with the rest of the budget,” she said.

Brooks said she wants to focus on a budget based solely on student enrollment, and try to keep county kids in public schools rather than see them leave for private or homeschooling options.

Like the other candidates, Brooks said the county needs better representation and support when it comes to school counselors, instructional aides, mental health, and diversity issues.

“It’s a lot that we need to look at,” she said.

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