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Carroll County Public Schools facing staffing challenges during hybrid, parents mostly positive about kids’ in-person return

Carroll County Public Schools reported 118 staff members are not in school due to quarantining for COVID-19 as of Monday.

Jon O’Neal, chief operating officer, said 16 of the 118 are central office staff members and that the number is fluid.

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“I think that people’s perception may be heightened or different now depending on how they felt as an individual regarding the decision to return to hybrid, but we face the same or similar effort as we did last time,” he said in an email regarding staffing.

Since students returned to hybrid learning last week, CCPS has worked to fill in areas where staff members are absent. Despite the challenges the school system faced with staff, several parents have reported positive reviews of their child’s in-person learning experience.

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O’Neal said they are focused on assisting schools with staffing coverage and following the process for quarantines. Schools work with central office to fill in the vacant spots with substitutes, central office staff and other resources.

Although staffing challenges were dealt with in the fall when elementary and middle schools had about a month of hybrid learning and high schools had one week, O’Neal said the numbers of those in quarantine are much higher now than before.

When hybrid resumed Thursday, 5,475 students took part in-person. There are some 24,568 students enrolled in CCPS, so approximately 12,000 would be eligible to participate in either cohort A (Monday and Tuesday) or cohort B (Thursday and Friday).

West Middle School informed parents on Friday that 12 classroom teachers were teaching virtually that day. Substitutes were in the classrooms to assist with students, assignments, technology and classroom procedures. The school expected the number of teachers working virtually to increase to 15 the following Monday, while 205 cohort A students were in the building Monday and Tuesday. They averaged 148 students last week with Cohort B.

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James Carver, principal at East Middle School, said last week that six staffers had to be quarantined, but by the first day back to school, their positions were successfully replaced. He said at the time, he expected about 218 students to attend school that day and 231 students when cohort A arrived.

East Middle School Assistant Principal Jodi Weaver leads students from school buses as they arrive on the first day back to school in Carroll County Thursday, Jan. 7, 2020.
East Middle School Assistant Principal Jodi Weaver leads students from school buses as they arrive on the first day back to school in Carroll County Thursday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

O’Neal said they not only help replace teachers in classrooms but other areas as well.

Social media users spoke about lack of custodian staff at West Middle and Mt. Airy Elementary. O’Neal confirmed custodians at those schools have been absent due to quarantine. However, replacements have been filled for them as well.

“We bring in appropriate central resources, floater custodians, or contracted help to ensure that the school has adequate coverage,” he said. “Again, this was true last time we were in the hybrid model.”

Daphne Gates, a building supervisor at Shiloh Middle School, said custodial staff has had a shortage even before the pandemic.

“Now, it’s worse than ever,” she said.

Gates said if staff members have two or more symptoms “they boot their butt out.” She later added that she wonders if people are afraid to apply for the job nowadays out of fear of contracting the virus.

Gates said it hasn’t been too bad at Shiloh, they have one custodian who is in isolation and there is no floater available to take the staffer’s place. She said Shiloh has four full-time employees and one floater who is shared with North Carroll Middle School.

Despite being low on help, she said the school system is being thorough when it comes to the virus.

“The school system is taking this pandemic seriously as far as our health and making sure we’re following the protocols,” she said.

Teresea McCulloh, president of Carroll County Education Association, said she and members are concerned that staffing has affected instruction.

“We have a very serious concern that our educators are already overloaded, and they are increasingly being asked to do more,” she said in an email. “CCEA continues to be terribly concerned about the safety, mental and physical health, and quality of instruction during this staffing shortage for all of our community. In addition, Central Office staff are being pulled to cover, resulting in a lack of availability and responsiveness when needs arise.”

An online petition calling for the school system to return to virtual learning had over 1,400 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. It cited current COVID-19 infection rates in the community, staffing numbers and a drop in teacher and staff morale as reasons the board of education should reverse its decision.

William Winchester Elementary School students arrive on the first day back to school in Carroll County Thursday, Jan. 7, 2020.
William Winchester Elementary School students arrive on the first day back to school in Carroll County Thursday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Times put out a social media request to parents to share their thoughts on the resumption of hybrid learning and responses were overwhelmingly positive.

However, Alicia Francis Lee said her seventh-grade daughter sent an email to school board members noting how hybrid learning affected her virtual struggles.

“The instruction is much better on Wednesdays and virtual schooling because the teacher can focus on all of us equally,” Lee said her daughter wrote in an email. “Hybrid instruction is very divided and to be honest, it’s harder for me to focus because you can’t hear the teacher or students that are in school when they have a class discussion.”

The middle schooler said she does not want long-term substitutes who do not know the school subjects or plans for the class.

Amy Gorman, a parent of a five-year-old, had only praise to share.

She said her son was in class with five other kids and he has never been happier to be back. She said so many families have struggled during virtual learning, but now parents have the option to do what’s best for their children.

“The decision has been made and as a community, now more than ever, it is in everyone’s best interest to do everything possible to make this work, for the children’s sake,” she said in an email.

Karen Sparks said the first week back for her son, a student at Mechanicsville Elementary, could not have gone any smoother. The teacher is there in person and is doing a “remarkable job.”

“The first night he came home, I already saw a difference,” she said in an email. “He was happier and listened better and more engaged. He also slept better.”

Jennifer Martin of Sykesville said her elementary school son had both teachers in his class and her middle-schooler had three of four teachers in person. She said the schools are doing an excellent job given the situation and they are grateful they reopened.

“The hardest thing for my middle school son is not having any friends at school,” she said.

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Martin added he struggles when he learns online, but the face-to-face instruction means everything to him.

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Holly Jackson’s high schooler at South Carroll loves having physical education, math and businesses classes in person, she said, adding that he’s happy to reunite with his friends.

Tasha Graham, a parent of three, said her family’s experience with hybrid learning has always been positive. Her elementary aged son and daughter both were happy to return to class and her high schooler looked forward to being back in the building.

Half of her high schooler’s teachers are teaching over the computer and she hopes it’s temporary.

“School was never meant to be done over the computer for school-aged children,” she said in an email. “I’m hoping all teachers know their value to the education and future of their students.”

Carroll’s board of education meets for its monthly update meeting Wednesday, Jan. 13.

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