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Navigating the pandemic: From online learning to hybrid mode, ‘frustrating’ year for Carroll County Public Schools

COVID-19 overshadowed all else in 2020, affecting every aspect of life in Carroll. This week, the Times is looking back at how five key sectors — business, education, government, health care and law enforcement — adapted and carried on amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Challenging, complex, frustrating and hopeful are four words Steve Lockard, superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools, used to describe 2020.

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He said he wasn’t sure if someone could be frustrated with a virus, but he was.

“I say frustrating because we all know we want students back in our schools and we need them there,” he said. But the pandemic has hindered CCPS from doing so.

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Discussions about education in Carroll County have mostly centered around returning students to classrooms and the effect the coronavirus has had on students, teachers and staff.

The year for CCPS started with meetings about the $371 million budget, the accomplishment of holding the highest graduation rates in the state and dismissing early for snow. However, more recent conversations addressed recovering from a possible $4 million loss due to a nearly 800-student drop in enrollment likely caused by parents seeking private, in-person learning for their kids, a large increase in failing grades that was blamed on online learning and the elimination of snow days while in virtual mode.

School officials addressed a string of bus crashes at the beginning of the year that were found to be unrelated. Now, significantly fewer buses are on the road. The special education department requested more staff in January, but special education teachers said they no longer want to teach in-person due to safety concerns triggered by the rise of COVID-19 cases.

Two Carroll County Public Schools buses collided Wednesday, injuring three students, in the 5200 block of Braddock Road in Woodbine.
Two Carroll County Public Schools buses collided Wednesday, injuring three students, in the 5200 block of Braddock Road in Woodbine. (Dave Pribulick/Courtesy photo)

Carroll was named the fifth best county in the nation at protecting and providing for kids, according to the 2020 U.S. Childhood Report published by Save the Children, but there’s a significant divide in the community on the best option for learning. Some parents have called to “open the damn schools” while others disagree with returning students at this time, with community COVID-19 transmission levels higher than they’ve ever been.

Lockard said the unknown of everything is what made the year so challenging and complex. It seemed like the guidelines and procedures were always changing, he said, though he knows the decision-makers were doing their best.

The school system is more than students in the classroom, Lockard said. It’s a “community hub” and he craves for the days they can bring back large groups of people.

The Carroll County Board of Education spent hours discussing students’ return this year. Conversations were led by Donna Sivigny and Marsha Herbert, the president of vice president at the time, who were both reelected this year. Herbert is now the president of the board and Ken Kiler is the vice president.

Board of Education candidates Marsha Herbert and Donna Sivigny participate in a forum at the Community Media Center in Westminster on Tuesday, Sept. 29.
Board of Education candidates Marsha Herbert and Donna Sivigny participate in a forum at the Community Media Center in Westminster on Tuesday, Sept. 29. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

In March, around the time state officials announced closing all Maryland public schools to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, McDaniel College announced classes would move online. Students at the public schools began virtual learning the same month.

Carroll’s public school system announced in July they would start the school year virtually.

McDaniel students were returning to campus in August and the in late September small groups of students returned to CCPS. Students in elementary and middle school returned to the building Oct. 19 under a hybrid model, but the return of high school students was delayed another month.

Principal Joseph Dorsey greets siblings Natalia, left, and Gemma DiFatta as they arrive on the bus at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster on the first day of hybrid instruction in Carroll County Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Principal Joseph Dorsey greets siblings Natalia, left, and Gemma DiFatta as they arrive on the bus at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster on the first day of hybrid instruction in Carroll County Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (Dylan Slagle)

Ed Singer, the county health officer, announced 10 people in CCPS tested positive for COVID-19 in early November, and a day later, the first outbreak occurred within a special education program at Robert Moton Elementary. The program was briefly shut down.

After staff members at other schools showed coronavirus symptoms and another tested positive, temporary closures occurred at three more special education programs, or Learning for Independence (LFI) programs.

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Cases continued to rise in the county and around the state. The school system surpassed metrics the board and the state put in place that warranted reassessing its in-person learning plans. But when it was time to decide if high school students would return to in-person learning, the board voted yes, going against the health offier’s recommendation, citing concerns for mental health due to isolation.

A few weeks later, the board also gave winter sports the go-ahead, despite the health officer’s suggestion to hold off.

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Lora Rakowski, a spokesperson for Maryland State Department of Education, said despite the department’s recommendation to reevaluate in-person learning if new case rates increase by 2 per 100,000 or positivity rates increase by 1.5% within two weeks, which the county had far surpassed, decisions are ultimately left to local school boards.

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“Although the positivity rate, along with the new case rate per 100,000 population, are core indicators as to whether schools should open or close, they are not intended to be absolute determinants,” she said in an email.

A week after high school students were granted their return, the board suspended hybrid learning for all. In the same meeting, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, an ex-officio member of the school board, told the board he’s disappointed in the way he’s treated by members. He said he’s been interrupted while he speaks. Board members began using yellow and red cards to raise when they want to speak.

In early December, tentatively, Jan. 7 was set as a date for students to return to hybrid learning. Singer said in an interview last week that he applauds the school system for allowing in-person learning for small groups of students, however, “it certainly doesn’t make sense to send a large number of kids back to school at this point, in my opinion.”

Despite the challenges, there were accomplishments in 2020.

The state superintendent of schools, Karen Salmon, said CCPS was doing well with its in-person learning when she visited.

Hampstead Elementary celebrated its National Blue Ribbon and Jena Ehmann, a reading specialist at Winfield Elementary School, was named Carroll’s teacher of the year.

Most private schools remained open this year and reported increases in enrollment few positive cases of COVID-19.

McDaniel College also had low case numbers after students returned to campus in the fall.

Principal Arlene Moore at Hampstead Elementary School Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Hampstead Elementary has been named a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School.
Principal Arlene Moore at Hampstead Elementary School Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Hampstead Elementary has been named a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School. (Dylan Slagle)

Roger Casey, president of McDaniel Colllege, announced he was stepping down after the academic year. Julia Jasken, the school’s provost, will be stepping up to take his place.

And Carroll Community College ranked No. 21 among 698 schools for WalletHub’s 2020 best and worst community colleges.

Lockard said there are plenty of things to be proud of this year. He said the high graduation rates shouldn’t be overlooked and neither should the hard work school staff and county commissioners put in to develop this year’s budget.

The superintendent also noted the expansion of the Career and Technology Center was an accomplishment as well as the continued updates of East Middle School’s construction project.

“Even with all the challenges that the pandemic has brought to us, I couldn’t be more proud of the system,” Lockard said, adding staff members have been as creative, innovative and hard working as possible to shift to the different modes of instruction.

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