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Carroll County Public Schools to start 2020-21 school year virtually

The Carroll County Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday night, after more than 5½ hours of deliberation, to begin the 2020-21 school year virtually.

The school system plans to reevaluate whether to move to another model by the Oct. 14 board meeting.

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If Carroll County Public Schools leaders decide to move to a hybrid model — with some in-person instruction — at that time, staff believe they could be ready for the start of a new academic quarter in early November.

In the meantime, some small groups such as special education students and career and technology education students will begin to receive some in-person education.

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The school system also wants to partner with and support community nonprofits and childcare centers that are offering more support for kids.

Board member Marsha Herbert said at one point before the vote: “I want to open up, but I know we can not at this time. But I do want to make sure we are on top of these inequities and we take care of those career and tech students.”

Superintendent Steve Lockard said they also want to look at opportunities for students to sign up for times to come into the school building to use connectivity resources and possibly get support from a staff member. These plans are less developed, but he said they are looking at similar plans in nearby counties.

Numerous school systems throughout Maryland have already decided to remain virtual for the first semester, but Lockard said he didn’t want to give up on the entire semester. It is planned that this will be an “enhanced” version of the distance learning model CCPS employed last spring.

In her comments after the vote, Board President Donna Sivigny said that the spring semester’s move to distance learning was a “herculean effort” that should be praised for what it accomplished under the circumstances, but was at times “woefully inadequate” at educating students.

“I hope that community understands that we all want to get the kids back in as soon as possible and we’re going to be moving in that direction as soon as we can,” she said.

Prior to the vote, the board heard from numerous CCPS staff members, county Commissioner Dennis Frazier and Health Officer Ed Singer, as well as hearing comments from members of the public.

Sivigny thanked community members for the thousands of emails they sent and said some helped shape the school system’s thinking. She also said, “Emotions are running very high. Some emails were ... accusing us of killing people if we open up. On the other side, we got emails saying if we don’t open up we hate kids and don’t want to educate them.”

The meeting was delayed by some 50 minutes after its planned 5 p.m. start time because of technical difficulties. The live internet stream cut out or presented issues with sound for some viewers throughout.

At the next meeting, the board hopes to define the rhythm and norms of a virtual school day. They want to give the public more information about how much synchronous learning classes will aim for and other factors.

Chief Information Officer Gary Davis addressed the technology for students who don’t have access to devices or connectivity. He said that lending out devices should not be a problem and that the school system has enough. In addition, the 500 internet hot spots the school system ordered should arrive by Aug. 14. There will still be challenges, he said, because many of the families struggling with internet access will also be more likely not to have the cell service needed for the hot spots.

Before the meeting, two groups of demonstrators came face-to-face over their conflicting views on what to do about schools. Both were hoping to have their voices heard by those in charge of making decisions about the reopening of schools.

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One group, made up largely of members of the employee groups from Carroll County Public Schools circled the building in vehicles. Signs on cars included: “No hybrid, Yes virtual”; “A perfect solution does not exist. A safe one does!”; and “Teachers want to teach but they want to feel safe.”

Teresa McCulloh, president of the Carroll County Education Association teachers union, said there were more than 120 cars involved. “That number speaks volumes.”

Another group, Return2Learn Maryland, an advocacy group for reopening public schools at full capacity, lined Ralph Street outside the building holding signs and speaking through a bullhorn. In the plan for the rally, organizers said they hoped that pushing for CCPS to chose a “hybrid” model for back to school, where kids are in the classroom two days a week and staff four, would start a domino effect of more in-person openings across the state.

A driving protest staged by Carroll County employees lead by the Carroll County Education Association met with counterprotesters outside a meeting of the Carroll County Board of Education in Westminster Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
A driving protest staged by Carroll County employees lead by the Carroll County Education Association met with counterprotesters outside a meeting of the Carroll County Board of Education in Westminster Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

At about 4:15 p.m. there were a little over 25 protesters outside, and multiple vehicles making loops.

Among that group, Richard Potcner said he hopes more people will “start gathering and come together and start opening our eyes to what’s real. ... It’s killing old people that are already gonna die. And I’m not trying to sound not sympathetic.”

Christina Olson, founder of Return2Learn Maryland who helped organize the demonstration, said that in-person school is important for many reasons such as children’s mental health, services for special needs students, and services outside the classroom like meals.

“You’re gonna see our children are being left behind for no reason other than teachers don’t want to go to school,” she said.

Speaking during the meeting, she said that teachers and school activities had been vital to her as a child because she had a difficult home life. Beforehand, she said virtual learning leaves students without online access, and students with single or working parents who have less time to be at home to support their learning, she said.

We want equitable solutions and the solutions that have been proposed at this point are not equitable,” she said.

Potcner got up close to cars from the driving rally, shouting things like, “You’re an abomination, you’re an abomination. You’re a disgrace.”

Far before the advertised start of the meeting, a line of people waiting to take their three-minute speaking time at the meeting was forming outside the building.

The public comments were impassioned on both sides of the question and split with many different arguments.

A driving protest staged by Carroll County employees lead by the Carroll County Education Association met with counterprotesters outside a meeting of the Carroll County Board of Education in Westminster Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
A driving protest staged by Carroll County employees lead by the Carroll County Education Association met with counterprotesters outside a meeting of the Carroll County Board of Education in Westminster Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

Several teachers spoke up, saying they wanted to return to their classrooms, but that even one student or teacher death because of reopening in person would be unacceptable. More than one commenter asked board members if they could live with someone dying, knowing they had made the decision to reopen.

“This is not a hypothetical. These are our students,” one teacher said, quoting the number of new cases in children ages 10-19 in the county. There have been 69 cases in that age range to date.

Other staff said that there were still hundreds of questions about how the logistics for hybrid would work. They said that if those can’t be answered, the schools are not prepared to reopen.

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More than one parent of a special needs child spoke at the meeting, saying virtual learning would lead to their children falling farther behind caring for their children with complicated needs. One father said he needs the support of the specialists and therapists that work with his son, and he cannot provide those same specialized services on his own at home.

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The school system has had to plan for three possible scenarios throughout the summer: fully virtual learning, a “hybrid” plan that splits the student body attending school in person in half, and the return to five-days-per week class with. The school system may be in the position of switching to a different model in the midst of the school year if COVID-19 in Maryland gets better or worse.

In Phase II of the state’s recovery stages, CCPS is too large to reopen with the full student body at five-days-a-week under state guidelines. Assuming Maryland remains in that stage until the start of the school year, that leaves CCPS the option to open under a hybrid model or a fully virtual one.

The hybrid model would have students split into “A” group and “B” group, with half staying home and receiving their assignments online while the other is in the classroom. The A group would attend Mondays and Tuesdays and the B group would attend Thursdays and Fridays. School facilities would close on Wednesdays for cleaning and all groups would learn together virtually.

With the hybrid model, Wednesday would be the only day that students receive “synchronous” online education, meaning they are interacting with educators and peers. The planning committees have said there would be more synchronous virtual learning under the virtual model.

A draft of the plan was released to the public July 15, and all school districts in the state must submit a plan by Aug. 14.

The state does not show signs of moving into further reopening stages soon. At a news conference that started about a half-hour before the demonstrations, Gov. Larry Hogan said it was time for a “stop sign in further reopening plans” and that the state would not move into Phase III reopenings until it was “prudent” to do so. He introduced stricter requirements for mask use.

The Aug. 5 meeting of the Board of Education will be a closed meeting. The next open meeting will be held Aug. 12 at 5 p.m. It will be streamed at carrollk12.org.

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