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What’s next for Carroll County schools preparing for a virtual return in the fall?

Before the end of Wednesday night’s 5½-hour meeting in which the Board of Education voted to start the school year virtually, President Donna Sivigny said the next meeting will take a closer look at the flow and expectations of a virtual school day.

As Carroll County Public Schools staff prepare for the first day of school, Sept. 8, every minute will count, Superintendent Steve Lockard said.

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“And regardless of how each family may feel about whatever our decision is, I believe it is critical to provide as much time as we can for families to plan as well,” he said.

Late Wednesday after hearing from the public, CCPS staff and local experts, and debating the merits and ramifications of opening online only or in a hybrid model that would see students in school twice a week, the board voted unanimously for “enhanced distance learning.”

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While several Maryland school systems have said they will remain online only for the entire first semester, Carroll purposely did not set any sort of end date. Instead, the board members say they plan to reevaluate the state of the COVID-19 pandemic with an eye toward possibly reopening to students in some fashion for the second quarter in early November.

Caveats and access

The school board approved opening virtually after putting in several “caveats.”

For some small groups of students, hands-on instruction was identified as especially vital. These include some special needs students and career and technology program students. The plan is to have small groups begin meeting in August before school begins and continue into the school year.

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

Teachers will have the opportunity to teach virtually from their classrooms, if that is their preference.

The board plans to revisit no later than Oct. 14 whether to move to a hybrid model.

“We can always do so before, but that date allows us time to get well underway, and enough time to be able to pivot moving forward if conditions allow,” Lockard said.

In the meantime, the school system laid out some of the steps to improve the virtual learning experience from what it was in the spring. Maryland’s school systems had to pivot unexpectedly when schools were closed by the state March 13 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the main points the board stressed was expanding synchronous learning, when students are being taught by their teacher and interacting with their peers in real time through their Google Classrooms.

The state minimum for direct synchronous learning has been set at 20% of the school day. Sivingy said many felt that was too low. In the future, she asked that they work to define a goal amount, perhaps 40-50% of the day, and not just a minimum.

Grading will not return to the pass/fail model. Grades will be standard and students will need to check in for attendance each day.

For students who are not able to be there for the synchronous lesson, due to a variety of situations families identify, the direct instruction will be recorded and available to access afterward.

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In August, educators will be required to take at least eight hours of professional learning courses on virtual instruction, though they are encouraged to take more.

For students without access to devices or high-speed internet service, the school system is prepared to lend out laptops and internet hot spots. However, they still expect challenges, as many of the families struggling with internet access will also be more likely not to have the cell service needed for the hot spots.

Though it is still in the early stages of planning, Lockard said he hopes to see some opportunities where students can sign up for time to work out of school buildings to use the devices and internet connection there.

Directly following the vote, Lockard promised: “We will leave no stone unturned to try to make the best experience possible for the kids.”

Difficult choices

All members of the board addressed the impassioned responses from many sides and the impossibility of reaching a decision that would please everyone.

“More than 50% of the people wanted us to open up. We weren’t going to make everyone happy. I don’t think we even made ourselves happy. … We’re going to be moving forward as quickly as we can,” Sivigny said. She said that her own family would have chosen to return under the hybrid model if it was the best decision for CCPS to offer it.

Marsha Herbert acknowledged, “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.”

Patricia Dorsey said: “It’s people. … We can’t lose sight of that. Even if it’s just one, that’s one more life.”

She later added, “It’s heartbreaking we can’t open as normal, but we are in a pandemic. One of our biggest challenges has always been that we’re providing a safe environment for all our students and staff members.”

Ken Kiler said he is fine with opening up virtually, but said there needs to be openness and transparency about the ways CCPS is moving toward more reopening.

He said, “We need to look at this realistically. We have families begging to be taught and we’re saying ‘No thank-you. We’ll see you in a couple of months.’”

He also said he was afraid that if schools remained closed too long, layoffs could be a possibility.

Tara Battaglia said after hearing so much feedback, she wanted to make clear, “This wasn’t political.”

They had to make sure they were keeping everybody safe, “but there are a lot of pieces that go into that.”

“It’s not just black and white,” she said. “A lot of gray goes into it.”

Almost 11,000 students also replied to a CCPS survey. Regarding virtual learning, they said they would like to use one platform/online meeting tool and not jump between platforms by class. They expressed a wide spectrum of comfort levels with virtual learning. Their greatest concerns with virtual were the lack of interaction with peers and learning new content.

Weighing in on the decision

Before voting, the board heard from numerous CCPS staff members, County Commissioner Dennis Frazier and Health Officer Ed Singer — not to mention the thousands of impassioned emails, two demonstrations outside their doors earlier that evening and several individuals on both sides who made public comments.

Lockard gave his official recommendation as superintendent to open virtually. In his rationale, he spoke about the difficulty of balancing public health and educational concerns, which can sometimes feel in opposition.

“We know that the safest public health course of action is to not be open for in-person instruction, but we also know that the best thing for students and their learning is for us to be open in our traditional manner,” he said. “And in the middle of a pandemic we find ourselves trying to make the best possible choice somewhere between those two extremes, and that is what is so challenging about the decision.”

When considering the hybrid model, he came to feel it is the “one outcome that least satisfies any of the significant needs we know our students have.”

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Disruptions would range from student and employee absenteeism and leave, to bus service limitations, to cleaning and sanitizing protocols, to exposures of staff and students.

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“Almost every week, if not every day, there will be some portion of the system facing a disruption,” he said.

With an improved virtual teaching model, the direct interaction and overall quality will be far better than what was put together “on the fly” this past spring, he said.

The school system has worked closely with Singer throughout the planning process and sought his comments Wednesday night.

Singer said that as of Wednesday he was concerned with where the number of cases in Carroll County was headed after a week of all-time highs.

“A couple weeks ago when you guys were talking about a hybrid model, I was feeling pretty comfortable with things,” he said. “[Now] I’m more concerned.”

Before a hybrid open, he said he would like to see the case rate plateauing and heading in a downward direction. Still, he said the number of Carroll hospitalizations or patients in the ICU is not presently a major problem. Overall, they are at two-thirds capacity for ICU beds.

“I don’t feel like the hospitalization rate and number of beds available is a real significant issue for us at this point,” he said. “If they started approaching their capacity in ICU and critical care beds, that would be very concerning to me.”

He helped clarify questions about the disruptions that quarantining protocols could cause.

If someone has tested positive, anyone who has spent at least 15 minutes at less than 6 feet from them would have to stay in quarantine for two weeks, or until receiving a negative test. He hoped the turnaround times for tests will get down to two to four days.

In daycare centers, where children have been in groups of 15 including caregivers, there was one week where nine different operations had to close, he said. For the school system, where students can’t be taught all subjects by one teacher, it will be even more complicated.

“I’m not trying to sway you one way or another,” he said.

Frazier said he supported the decision to return virtually at first, but offered input for the eventual hybrid opening. He recalled that when he was in school, to combat severe overcrowding prior to new buildings being constructed, schools moved to a split-day model.

Half of the students began the day in school for about four hours followed by a break for transportation before the next group of students would arrive. Frazier said this model had the advantages of putting students in schools five days per week and allowing all athletes and students who participate in after-school activities to be placed in one group. He said this would avoid cross-contamination between groups during those activities.

For now, though, it will be online-only for Carroll students.

“While I know that everyone will not be pleased with this approach and that it is not ideal, I do believe that it offers the best, consistent instructional model that we can provide in the fall,” Lockard said, “and continues to move us gradually toward safely implementing in-person instruction, starting with targeted small groups.”

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