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Back to school: First day of hybrid learning in Carroll County ‘a pretty big deal’ for in-person students

Libby Green walked out of West Middle School with her dad, Robbie Green, after a first day of school unlike any she, or he, had ever experienced.

Libby sported a colorful mask and had her books in tow while her dad, a school counselor, chatted with principal Erin Brilhart in front of West Middle’s main entrance. The 12-year-old seventh-grader was part of her school’s first foray into Carroll County Public Schools’ hybrid learning plan, which officially went into effect Monday for elementary and middle school students.

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“I’ve been waiting for this since March,” Libby said. “It was a pretty big deal coming back today.”

For most CCPS students, Monday marked their first time attending classes in person since March 13, when school buildings throughout Maryland were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2019-20 school year ended with all public school students learning virtually.

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With the exception of some small groups that have had in-person learning, Carroll County has been in an enhanced virtual environment since the 2020-21 school year began on Sept. 8, with students being educated from home while teachers had the option of either working from their buildings or elsewhere. That changed Monday, when most educators returned to schools and the first in a rotation of students joined them while other classmates connected remotely.

“I thought it went well,” Libby said. “It was definitely very different, because you couldn’t talk to anyone. You had to wear a mask, and that was uncomfortable. My face was hot all day. And it was a little bit harder when the teacher has to teach the kids that are virtual ... and teach you, too.”

Art teacher Todd Wilson, third from left, directs students into the building as they arrive at Westminster West Middle School on the first day of hybrid instruction Monday, October 19, 2020.
Art teacher Todd Wilson, third from left, directs students into the building as they arrive at Westminster West Middle School on the first day of hybrid instruction Monday, October 19, 2020. (Dylan Slagle)

The CCPS hybrid schedule has students divided into A and B “cohorts,” with the A group going into buildings on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the B group on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are an all-virtual day for everyone, which also allows for cleaning and sanitizing the buildings.

The Carroll County Board of Education last week voted to delay the start of hybrid for high schools until Nov. 12, the first day of the second quarter. So the elementary and middle school communities launched the plan, and many involved said it went smoothly.

Several schools’ social media accounts were atwitter with excitement.

Spring Garden Elementary School students were greeted with a sign in one of the hallways that read, “We can’t mask how excited we are to welcome you back.”

At Freedom Elementary, sidewalks were brightened with colored chalk messages such as “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and “Glitter, sparkle and shine. But most of all be kind.”

Several administrators tweeted photos of semi-filled, socially distanced classrooms. CCPS was expecting roughly one-third of all Carroll elementary and middle schoolers to be in class Monday and Tuesday, another one-third later in the week and one-third staying home and continuing with virtual learning.

Bus arrivals and departures around the county were successful, said CCPS director of transportation services Mike Hardesty, who watched West Middle’s last few buses roll off the parking lot Monday afternoon with their cargo. Parent pick-ups took place on the opposite side of the school, where teachers and staff directed a single-file caravan and kept the flow moving.

“I was really impressed with the students and the teachers. Everyone handled the first day of hybrid really well,” said Kristi Reppe, acting principal at Sykesville Middle School.

Reppe said there were some technical difficulties along the way, but tech support staff fixed the issues and she praised them for their assistance.

Brilhart said his middle school students dealt with the adjustments as best they could. Everyone followed the new hallway directions and paid attention to social distance guidelines, he said, even in a cafeteria that featured a quirky layout with one-student-per-desks spaced out instead of the usual tables and seating arrangements.

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“It felt good because I’ve been home for a long time,” said Ryan Dunne, 12, a seventh-grader at East Middle School, who listed the best part of being back as “seeing friends, and writing on pencil and paper.”

Ryan said it wasn’t too difficult wearing his mask all day since his family has been going out to places where face coverings are required. Younger brother Brendan, 9, a third-grader at William Winchester Elementary, said keeping a mask on for long stretches of time wasn’t fun. But he was glad to take it off during lunch, he said.

Principal Joseph Dorsey directs students as they arrive at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster on the first day of hybrid instruction in Carroll County Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Principal Joseph Dorsey directs students as they arrive at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster on the first day of hybrid instruction in Carroll County Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (Dylan Slagle)

Brilhart said West Middle’s staff took classes outside for “mask breaks” throughout the day, taking advantage of nice weather and giving students and staff a chance to stretch (Brendan Dunne said William Winchester did the same).

“There will be little adjustments along the way that I think will make it smoother for the kids,” said Brilhart, who is in his second year as principal at West Middle. “Trying to keep it as normal as we can, and then as we get into the next couple of weeks we’ll figure out other things that we can do to make it better for them.”

Not everyone is utilizing the school system’s hybrid plan right now, either by choice or by ruling.

Lindsay Jensen’s son attends Westminster Elementary School but she said he’s staying in all-virtual mode because of safety concerns. Jensen recently sent a letter to the Board of Education to voice her displeasure with its decision on the hybrid plan, and said it felt rushed into action despite COVID-19 metrics being higher than before.

“The schedule that we were on for all-virtual was working,” said Jensen, who added that she felt Monday’s learning went well. “So it’s a little frustrating. ... They kind of got themselves already into a rhythm and were doing well with the virtual. Having to switch to this kind of format now, it just doesn’t seem like as much attention is going to be able to be put onto the virtual kids.”

High school students are waiting, in part, for CCPS to fill its void of more than 300 teachers that requested some form of federal leave amid the coronavirus pandemic. That has some doing their best to stay focused during virtual learning, like South Carroll senior Ryder Chalk.

“I’ve been just doing my schoolwork at home, just waiting,” said Chalk, who has tried to keep up with the weekly board meetings online. "I’ve been having to wait up to see what the ruling is and stuff. It’s kind of just tiring, not knowing what you’re doing the next day.

“I want to go back, but I’d rather go back full-time, not hybrid. I’m either in it for going back full-time or just not at all. With the amount of decisions they’re making, pushing it back every two weeks, it’s just redundant. ... It’s not fair to us , the students, and teachers, in my opinion.”

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