Carroll County Public Schools is about to embark on an unprecedented journey by implementing its hybrid learning plan, a model that arose amid the COVID-19 pandemic and has been debated, amended, and criticized for the past several months.
State Superintendent Karen Salmon in August encouraged the state’s public school systems to move toward more in-person learning. CCPS started this school year in what officials have called enhanced virtual learning, but soon after, small groups of students were allowed access to the Carroll County Career and Technology Center and some students with special needs have also had classes in school buildings.
This Monday, Oct. 19, is the start date for hybrid learning, and it’s set to begin after weeks of monitoring metrics and analyzing data as it pertains to Carroll and the coronavirus. Elementary and middle schools are going first, with high schools' reopening delayed at least for a few more weeks.
Here’s some of what to expect as the school system begins this significant new phase of the 2020-21 calendar.
COVID-19 and symptom response
The school board members met Sept. 23 and talked with Jon O’Neal, chief operating officer, and Karl Streaker, director of student services, about the confusion and questions that had been building in the community in regards to how CCPS is handling serious health issues among anyone in its buildings.
“I think we want to articulate very clearly, here’s what you can expect,” Superintendent Steven Lockard said during the meeting. “We want to be transparent, and making sure we’re communicating with everybody who needs to be communicated with. We also have to respect and adhere to privacy of individuals and students. So we want to make sure folks understand how we can go about doing that.”
CCPS is using a decision aid taken from the Maryland Department of Health and Maryland State Department of Education. Under those guidelines, an illness like or relating to COVID-19 is someone with any one of the following symptoms: cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, new loss of taste or smell; or at least two of the following: fever of 100.4 degrees or higher (measured or subjective), chills or shaking chills, muscle aches, sore throat, headache, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and congestion or runny nose.
“We basically don’t want kids to come to school if they’re sick,” Streaker said, “regardless if they have one symptom or two symptoms. ... That’s a very, very important part of controlling the spread of this disease, and any other disease, quite frankly.”
If a person exhibits one symptom that doesn’t meet the definition, the decision aid calls for them to be excluded from school and recommends they contact a health care provider about further testing. They’ll be allowed to return when the symptoms have improved, and after having no fever (without fever-reducing medication) for at least 24 hours.
“Please don’t give your kid ibuprofen at 6 a.m. and pray they make it through the day,” Streaker said, “because when that wears off at noon we’re going to be calling you and spinning up, potentially, a COVID-type thing. And you’re putting everybody at risk.”
If a person develops possible symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, they should isolate, pending test results. Anyone with close contact of that person (less than 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer, Streaker said) should quarantine, per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Someone with a positive test should stay home at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared. Someone with a negative test should stay home until symptoms have improved, but close contacts don’t need to stay home as long as they remain asymptomatic.
An asymptomatic person who tests positive for COVID-19 needs to stay home for 10 days from the day of the test. Anyone who was within close contact needs to stay home for 14 days from the date of the potential exposure, even if they have no symptoms or they have a negative test done during quarantine.
Board members noted at the Sept. 23 meeting that anyone who misses in-person learning because of an illness can still participate remotely.
Streaker said there will be challenges to face with people experiencing common symptoms and how everyone manages the procedures. “Certainly a lot of learning will take place as we work through them,” he said.
How it works
Under the hybrid model, half of all students will be able to attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. Students will participate remotely in virtual learning on the days they aren’t in school buildings. Wednesdays are set aside for all-virtual learning, giving custodial staff a chance to clean and sanitize.
Several schools crafted e-newsletters, hosted online Q&As, and delivered other informational tools to inform their communities of the procedures and guidelines. Google Classroom serves as the instructional platform for the fall semester, according to the CCPS reopening plan.
Sample schedules for synchronous (groups of students learning at the same time) and asynchronous learning, along with updated bus routes and specific school hours, are accessible on the Carroll County Public Schools website.
Students and staff must wear face coverings at all times when in buildings. Students will also be required to wear masks while riding a bus, except for those with disabilities that would preclude them from wearing one, or anyone that has a school nurse-approved reason for not wearing one.
The plan calls for a bus seating chart of one child per seat, with siblings and students from the same household as an exception, Mike Hardesty, director of transportation services, said in the Sept. 23 board meeting.
After bus routes are completed, drivers and attendants will disinfect any high-touch areas. Also, any driver or attendant with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher is not to be on the bus.
The CCPS Reopening and Recovery Plan was last modified in September. The initial plan was presented to the school board in July, then was altered based on feedback from parents, employees and students.
O’Neal served as plan coordinator and was responsible for final development after gathering research from three work groups ― the Operational Logistics and Safety Work Group, the Academics, Equity and Accountability Work Group, and the Schools and Student Support Work Group.
The Carroll County Health Department was routinely consulted during the creation and modification of the plan, school officials say, and they adhered to state guidance along the way.
Hardesty chaired the Operational Logistics and Safety Work Group. The work group included facilities, finance, human resources, technology services, transportation, school security and student health services. Overall group responsibilities included cleaning and sanitizing, building modifications, logistics for required staff and student health screenings, and protocols to respond to virus exposures.
Jason Anderson, CCPS chief of academics, equity and accountability, fronted the Academics, Equity and Accountability Work Group, which oversaw curriculum, instructional technology, equity, and special education. Duties included putting together and coordinating instructional materials, devising a plan that provides consistency and access for all students, and coming up with virtual options for any students who cannot or do not return to school.
Cindy McCabe, chief of schools for CCPS, led the Schools and Student Support Work Group, which encompassed school directors, student services, athletics, and special education. This group helped develop a weekly/daily school schedule, procedures for monitoring attendance, and staffing to aid the instructional delivery model, social distancing, and community health protocols for schools.
Outlook from the top
The consensus from school officials in recent meetings is that Carroll County Public Schools is prepared for instructional alterations as needed with health metrics continuing to change amid the pandemic. The hybrid learning plan was never considered ideal by everyone involved, but officials feel it’s set up to serve the school system as best it can.
“I’m trying to take the attitude of, we can do this, not we can’t do this,” board president Donna Sivigny said at a recent meeting. “I’m trying to turn it into, how can we make this happen?”
Board member Ken Kiler said CCPS is blessed to have close communications with the local health department, led by Health Officer Ed Singer.
“I think we owe it to the parents, and we owe it to staff, to be as transparent as possible. ... Yes, there will be cases, and yes, your class may be shut down for a day,” Kiler said at a recent meeting.
Singer has stuck to his stance that he’s not in favor of opening schools compared to the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Carroll County, but he deferred to the board in making its decision to move forward with hybrid learning.
“Until this pandemic is over,” Singer said, “there’s no such thing as no risk.”