Keeping students socially distanced and safe from COVID-19 is not the only challenge being faced by Carroll County Public Schools as plans to begin in-person learning later this month progress.
According to information shared by CCPS officials at Wednesday night’s Board of Education meeting, 336 staff members, including 282 teachers, have informed the school system they will be requesting leave under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or the Family Medical Leave Act, and those numbers could grow by the planned Oct. 19 return of students to school buildings under a hybrid format.
“We were anticipating some number. We weren’t necessarily anticipating quite that volume,” said Jonathan O’Neal, chief operating officer of CCPS.
It was also noted that the raw numbers don’t tell the entire story, because in many cases it’s counselors or special education teachers or advanced academic teachers requesting leave — harder to replace than classroom teachers.
O’Neal and others at the meeting described some of the strategies they are working on to address the issues that could be created by so many educators taking off at the same time, including scenarios in which students will have to be sent home after the school day has begun or in which certain classes or entire schools will have to be shut down on a given day.
One of those possible approaches is to ask teachers to continue to remotely teach if they have requested leave because they have medical or childcare issues that make coming into the buildings a nonstarter. In those situations, the students would be at their desks learning from their teacher virtually, but an adult would still need to be in the classroom to supervise. O’Neal said they would be using their pool of substitute teachers and instructional assistants, as well as advertising for and hiring hourly workers to cover the classes of teachers instructing remotely.
The use of instructional assistants would potentially create other issues because they are needed for recess, lunch and other duties, O’Neal said.
“We know that many of our teachers would be willing to come back and teach virtually,” said Steven Wernick, director of elementary schools. “The challenges we are finding is that if a teacher is teaching virtually, we still need all hands on deck.”
Wernick also noted that, at least at the elementary level, they would be concerned about asking such young students to bring in laptops, whether personal or issued by CCPS, because there’s the chance of it becoming “broken, damaged or lost.” Another issue is that the adult staffing the classroom may not be certified and would likely be unable to answer questions.
Superintendent Steve Lockard said one idea that has been discussed is pairing educators who would be teaching virtually with students who opt to remain in online learning even after Oct. 19, particularly at the elementary level. (CCPS staff expect about one-third of students to remain remote, with two-thirds returning to buildings for hybrid learning.) He conceded, though, that classes are purposefully put together to support students’ instruction levels.
Tom Hill, director of middle schools, pointed out that one position unfilled can impact hundreds of students.
“So this is probably the greatest challenge that we are facing right now,” he said, “making sure that we have quality instruction for our students.”
Eric King, director of high schools, said the potential loss of teachers of Advanced Placement courses presents additional dilemmas.
“Losing any of those people is a very damaging blow, especially if they are not able or willing to teach virtually, because then we may not even be able to call the course that the students take AP,” he said.
Board President Donna Sivigny suggested that no student attending school in person should have to have more than one class with a virtual teacher.
“Yes, President Sivigny, I agree with you 100% — and that’s why the total number of substitutes and replacements that we need is stressing us so much,” King said.
Planning for ‘worst-case scenario’
Another way CCPS suggested trying to decrease the teacher shortfall was to accommodate those who have children in CCPS schools who would need childcare on the days each week when their students would not be attending school in-person by allowing their kids to go to school each day of the week. Human resources was looking into how many teachers this group includes.
“It won’t be a cure for all, but every piece that helps lower that number or meet this challenge is a help,” said Jason Anderson, performance, equity and accountability director.
CCPS personnel then went though a number of scenarios that could require classes to be forced from in-person to online — or schools to close — possibly requiring parents to pick up students on short notice.
One way that could happen, for example, is if a class is being taught virtually to in-person students and the adult assigned to cover that class becomes ill or is quarantined.
“We will probably have exhausted the number of subs, so when a person gets sick in the morning, it amplifies the problem because all solutions have been exhausted,” Hill said. “I just want everyone to be aware that after all the scheduling, planning, adjusting and everything we’re doing, maximizing staff, this is a scenario that has a very high chance of happening.”
Said Chief of Schools Cindy McCabe: “Even though this is the worst-case scenario, it’s going to happen.”
Need for nurses
A scenario that could close down an entire school would be not having a nurse available due to illness or quarantine.
McCabe said CCPS is working on a plan to have nurses fill vacancies with floating nurses and agency nurses on deck, but there was no guarantee it would be enough. Karl Streaker, director of student services, said they have identified eight nurses who can fill in but said they might not always be available because of other jobs and commitments.
Board member Ken Kiler asked about what CCPS had done in the past when a nurse called in sick. Streaker said there were times in the past when they were able to do “some creative things” that they can’t do “in the midst of a pandemic.”
“There’s also specialized training our nurses need to have. We owe it to our families to be sure we have [a registered nurse] available to our children,” Streaker said. “I think we absolutely need to have a nurse who has the skill and the training to respond appropriately and evaluate appropriately.”
Another situation that could compromise in-person learning would be a lack of custodial staff to be able to clean and sanitize areas after an exposure. O’Neal noted that CCPS has lost 29 custodial positions over the past decade for budgetary reasons.
Along those lines, CCPS staff and BOE members discussed what would happen if a classroom space is closed off for 24 hours due to cleaning and sanitizing protocols from the Maryland State Department of Education and the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Classes would be conducted in additional spaces when possible, but in some schools, there is little additional available space, in some cases because of furniture being moved out of classes to encourage social distancing.
Finally, officials talked about what would happen if CCPS is unable to provide transportation because a bus driver calls out sick and no substitute driver can be found. In the past, CCPS could make up for a driver calling out by doubling up routes. But because of social distancing requirements on buses, that is unlikely to be possible now.
O’Neal promised parents that individual schools will do everything they can to avoid having to take extreme measures, “because the goal isn’t to send kids home or not have them in.”
He told board members he understood that the hours spent discussing the issue of teacher leave on Wednesday gave them a lot to consider, but that it was important for them and the community to understand.
“Its the major, up-front, in-advance-of-hybrid item that so many of us ... have been stressing about and trying to work through,” he said.
The board reaffirmed plans to begin hybrid learning on Oct. 19, providing health metrics allow them to do so.
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“I’m trying to take the attitude of, ‘We can do this,’ not ‘We can’t do this.’ A lot of this discussion is all the reasons why we’re struggling,” Sivigny said. “I’m trying to turn this into how can we make this happen.”