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In ‘the first of many meetings’ assessing fall reopening, Carroll County schools officials detail options

With 76 days until Carroll County Public Schools go back in session, the Board of Education met Wednesday evening to start working through the complicated task of planning for different possible scenarios for the fall semester will be held amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This planning process requires navigating complicated and sometimes conflicting guidance and regulations as well as working to source supplies that are in high demand, Central Office staff shared with the board and members of the public listening. The meeting was streamed live and will be archived on the carrollk12.org website and the school system’s YouTube channel.

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CCPS started this planning process at the beginning of June. Lockard said Wednesday’s update would be “the first of many meetings,” as the board plans to meet several more times before the date in mid-August when all Maryland public school systems must submit their reopening plans to the state for approval. CCPS staff aim to have a draft ready for board and public review by July 15.

CCPS Chief of Operations Jonathan O’Neal, who has been tasked with taking the lead on planning, said the school system will be reaching out to stakeholders and taking feedback from the public throughout the summer.

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The planning process is complex, he said. “It’s a lot to take in. When we start to delve into what has to be thought through ... with each conversation more and more things come up.”

Staff discussed the multiple methods of instruction they will have to plan for. One is a traditional reopening if the state and Carroll County are in Phase III of Gov. Larry Hogan’s reopening plan, though that doesn’t mean there will be no restrictions in schools. If the state remains in Phase II, CCPS is considering a modified opening that may limit the amount of students allowed on buses or in classrooms at one time. Students might attend school some days of the week and learn at a distance on other days. The third scenario would be completely based on distance learning.

O’Neal encouraged the public to look at the state’s “Roadmap for Recovery” and guidelines from the Maryland State Department of Education to get an idea of the detailed and, at times, he said, contradictory information the school system’s plans have to abide by.

The planning process is made more complicated because the three models will likely have to intermingle. Even if Maryland is in Phase III and schools are able to reopen traditionally, there will still be families that choose to continue with learning because of their circumstances. The school system might also have to temporarily implement distance learning if there is a coronavirus outbreak in a particular school. The option will also have to be available if a student or teacher comes in contact with the virus — also known by the disease it causes, COVID-19 — and are required to quarantine for 14 days.

Jason Anderson, chief academic, equity and accountability officer for CCPS, said that they’ve “heard loud and clear” that the Carroll community doesn’t want to return to virtual learning like it was from March through June of the spring semester, but part of the summer’s work would be improving how virtual learning is handled. He recognized the burden that teaching staff face in getting ready for a semester of unknowns.

Board President Donna Sivigny asked Ed Singer, county health officer, if he knew what the state might have to see from the novel coronavirus data before moving into the next phase.

Singer said he couldn’t say for sure, especially considering Hogan hadn’t stuck completely to the roadmap in the past. One possible requirement to enter the next stage might be that a vaccine is available, which likely would not be until next year, he said. He advised CCPS that they should be ready to open with the state still in Phase II, and it would be easier to loosen up than it would to plan on Phase III and get stuck.

Other staff members shared details on the status of planning for food services, purchasing supplies, and what would happen if a student or staff member got sick. In addition to contract tracing by the Carroll County Health Department to determine who would need to quarantine, right now guidance suggests a school building should close for two days for cleaning after a case was confirmed there.

Ray Prokop, facilities management director, said that the process of purchasing cleaning supplies, sanitizer and personal protective equipment for the school buildings has been uncertain and competitive. They’re looking at ways they might have to shift or hire more custodial staff.

Looking forward, Sivigny asked that the school system try to focus on “bottlenecks,” or factors that would make the biggest difference in how things will operate in the fall.

Survey responses

Cindy McCabe, chief of schools, shared some results of a survey conducted to assess parents’ opinions about returning to school buildings. She said the results were general, to serve as an overall “temperature check.” About 49% of parents responded to the survey.

When asked what respondents thought about returning to school, about 49% said they’d be comfortable “reopening for all students,” about 33% said they’d be comfortable “reopening in a limited manner” and about 18% said they’d “prefer virtual instruction.” When asked about bus transportation, 36% felt comfortable with students riding buses in a traditional manner, 28% felt comfortable with buses limited to one student per seat, and 36% planned to drive their student to school. CCPS also surveyed parents about the factors that would most influence their decisions, finding “cleaning protocols” to be influential for the most parents and “daycare needs” to be influential for the least, of the seven factors included.

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Employees, not limited to teachers, were also surveyed, and 42.9% responded. About 49% said they were comfortable reopening for all students, 38% said they were comfortable reopening in a limited manner and 12% said they would prefer to continue virtual learning. A smaller percentage said they were considering taking leave. Their answers on influencing factors were similar to parents’ answers, but more teachers listed their health needs and the health needs of their families as very influential in the decision.

In a survey of about 160 students, mostly connected to the Student Government Association, students were asked to rate on a scale of 1-5 their comfort level with a full return and their comfort level staying fully online. About 40% said they were very comfortable with fully returning to school, the highest level, while about 3.5% said they would be very uncomfortable, the lowest level. The rest fell in between.

In a survey of their comfort level returning to all virtual learning, about 6% said they would be very comfortable, while 28.6% said they would be very uncomfortable. The largest group, 31%, responded at the fourth level, just below very uncomfortable.

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Regarding their preferences, 56% expressed that they would like to return to school in the traditional manner, 38% would like to return in some kind of limited manner or using some kind of rotation method, and 7% would want to go fully online.

Devanshi Mistry, student representative to the Board of Education, raised concern that only a few students had the opportunity to complete the survey compared to the approximately 25,000-person student population of CCPS.

An upcoming survey will include much more specific scenarios that the county is looking at and have space for an open-ended response, McCabe said. O’Neal noted that there will be many more opportunities for feedback, including when CCPS releases its draft reopening plan. The community will have about a month to respond to that directly, he said.

Bus transportation

Staff felt that if there would be flexibility in the guidelines anywhere, it might come with buses. To keep buses empty enough for students to maintain a six-foot distance from one another, buses would have to limit students to about a fifth of the bus load.

If they’re able to under the guidelines, CCPS Director of Transportation Mike Hardesty said the system’s plan might look like one student per seat, except for siblings, and each rider wearing a mask on the bus. Drivers would disinfect buses once after the morning runs and once after the afternoon runs, though it was not specified whether drivers would be required to wear masks as well.

Singer said one of his most important recommendations is to have all students wash their hands right when they arrive at school. He also recommended assigning seats so that if there is a case of exposure, only the students seated closest to the exposed student might need to quarantine, rather than the entire bus.

Social distancing

McCabe said the question of whether classrooms will have to be set up with a six-foot distance between desks will make a big difference to what the semester looks like. If schools are limited to 10 students in a classroom, the modified reopening plan would have to mean students are in school once per week.

Throughout the meeting, several speculated whether the sate may allow some loosening of this restriction, as was done for daycare centers.

“If we can get to 15 kids, the environment is going to be much more doable than if we’re at 10,” Anderson said, referring to the number of individuals now allowed per room in child care centers. Lockard said this was something the school system would push for specific guidance on.

Masks

It was too early to say when masks would or would not be required in schools. One scenario is that students would be masked on the bus and when moving through the hallways, but would not be required to wear face coverings during class time.

Board member Tara Battaglia was concerned about requiring masks in classrooms with younger students. She worried teachers would be overwhelmed with having to enforce mask discipline with their elementary-schoolers, possibly hurting instruction.

McCabe said staff have the same worries. State guidelines will have a lot to do with this decision, including the guidelines on whether students have to keep a six-foot distance in the classroom.

Battaglia later asked Singer for clarification because she was not sure whether masks were required in Maryland or were a “suggestion.” Singer listed some of the situations where masks are required under the governor’s policies, including inside retail stores. For schools, there aren’t specific rules, but he expects the state will issue something before the start of the school year. He predicted they would be mandatory, at least for certain ages.

While he said he personally doesn’t enjoy wearing one, Singer said, “I look at it as being the least intrusive thing we can do to get back to our lives being a little bit more normal for now.”

The next Board of Education meeting is planned for July 8.

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