Carroll County high schools won’t be reopening on Monday after all.
While Carroll County Public Schools' hybrid learning plan is still set to begin Oct. 19, it will do so only at the elementary and middle school levels after the Board of Education voted Wednesday night to push back in-person learning at high schools by some 3 1/2 weeks.
The school board meeting, which began with public comments critical of the board both for not reopening schools fully and for opting to reopen all, also included the decision to begin high school sports no earlier than December and to revise the proposed 2021-22 school calendar so that the first day of school doesn’t fall on a Jewish holiday.
Superintendent Steve Lockard recommended that board members hold off on reopening high schools in order for CCPS to maintain a strong instructional level while filling the void created by educators who will be taking federal leave.
The board unanimously voted to delay the opening of hybrid learning at the high school level, setting a start date of Nov. 12, the first day of the second quarter.
Lockard told the board he would feel more comfortable waiting so as not to jeopardize academic integrity.
“I think we’re close. I think we’re very close,” he said. “But I think we need the benefit of a couple of more weeks so that we can make sure that we have the supports in place so that instructional integrity is not diminished. ... There’s a ton of logistics behind all of this.”
Board members expressed disappointment that high schools won’t open along with elementary and middle schools on Oct. 19, the date that the board targeted in August, but said they understood the rationale and praised CCPS staff for the long hours being put in to prepare for hybrid learning.
Board President Donna Sivigny said the more than 300 educators who were approved for some sort of federal leave speaks to the magnitude of the staff model the school system is dealing with.
Sivigny called the decision “a staged reopening,” and said the delay is “not the end of the world.”
“I think this makes sense,” she said. “It’s the best we can do.”
Board member Patricia Dorsey said the element of more time gives the school system a better opportunity to fill any open teaching jobs.
“It shows we’re not willing to just put any person into those positions,” she said.
Lockard said CCPS will still have qualified personnel in each class, whether it be the teacher in person, the teacher teaching virtually, or a certified long-term substitute. Students in buildings the past few weeks through some of Carroll’s programs have been getting a combination of virtual and in-person learning with help from substitutes, Lockard said.
“I want to make sure that our parents and community understand, we’re not dragging people in off the street and plunking them down in classrooms,” Lockard said.
Sivigny said the county this week saw 50 leave requests from the high school level, and because things change almost on a daily basis the move to delay high school opening was necessary.
Board Vice President Marsha Herbert said she was “very disappointed,” but added CCPS needs to be smart about moving forward.
“We need to be safe and we need to be successful,” she said. “All eyes are on us.”
Board member Tara Battaglia said she has been receiving emails from community members regarding the mental health and well-being of students, as well as their grades.
“I’m not happy with high schools not opening with everyone else,” Battaglia said. “But I do know that there are resources in our high schools, if we can just make sure that the teachers see if the student needs additional support for right now to get them through that. ...
“We fully understand what it’s like to have a high-schooler and now they’re saying, what are you doing? We were ready to go. Wrenches get thrown. There was nothing we can do.”
Sivigny said her high-school aged-daughter “will be devastated” by not being able to go back right away.
“I completely understand that disappointment,” Lockard said about high schools not opening Monday. “I’m hoping it’s short-lived.”
The board also voted to reassess the status of hybrid learning on a weekly basis, being able to react in the event that Carroll County sees a significant increase in COVID-19 cases.
The meeting’s public participation segment featured several community members cautioning the board on starting a hybrid learning plan next week.
Some talked about confusion among teachers, students, and families as it relates to the plan’s specifics. Others questioned the board’s haste to get its hybrid learning plan started while Carroll is seeing an increase in positive cases of COVID-19.
Ed Singer, the county’s top health official, said the data he presented Wednesday was similar to last week’s metrics, but that the number of new cases has been rising. He said the county is at 5.9 cases per day per 100,000 people as its weekly average.
It bothered Singer, he said, that Carroll is the midst of an uptick in cases, but the impact of that likely won’t be seen until school buildings have been open for a few weeks.
“I do feel like we’re in a higher risk of transmission, but you’ve got to balance that against your mission” of going forward with the hybrid plan, Singer said.
County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, ex-officio board member, said he has heard about frustration felt from several community members.
“I don’t think the school system is ready to reopen right now,” said Frazier, who was met with some pushback from some of the board members who argued they have been following the state’s guidelines all along.
Dorsey sided with Frazier in a concern about CCPS reopening based on metrics, and said, “I want to see us in a better place to bring back our folks to the buildings.”
Teresa McCulloh, president of the Carroll County Education Association, asked the board to keep listening to the teachers as they voice their concerns amid hybrid learning.
Instead of recognizing the educators' working 12- to 14-hour days in preparation, McCulloh said, show them by taking away some of the workload.
“There is definitely a difference between listening and hearing,” she said. “Educators are simply seeking direction and guidance in the best interest of our students, and your employees. We are trying to figure out what kind of plane you are asking us to build in flight. Are we in this together?”
CCPS modifying proposed calendar
Lockard proposed a revised calendar that allows for the 2021-22 school year to begin on Sept. 8, 2021, rather than Sept. 7, which is during Rosh Hashanah ― part of the Jewish faith’s High Holy Days. Lockard said the original proposal, which was presented to the board in early September, was met with feedback from the public, and it’s still on track to be voted on in November.
Under the new proposal, three emergency closing days are built into the calendar but they can be modified pending acceptance of virtual instruction for weather-related school closings.
Winter break is set to last from Dec. 24, 2021, until Jan. 3, 2022. Spring break goes from April 15-18. And the last day of school for students is slated for June 7 if no inclement weather days have been used (it’s June 10 if three days are taken).
Board members were pleased that the modification helps establish good communication and equity between CCPS and its communities.
Officials pushing for Dec. 7 sports start date
The board considered feedback from the public concerning the county’s options for high school athletics before voting unanimously Wednesday to follow the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association’s return-to-play plan.
One option was to start sports as soon as possible and follow a year-long plan, with fall sports practice beginning Nov. 2 and games beginning the week of Nov. 23. But that would have meant the fall season would end by Dec. 19, giving fall sports a much shorter season than winter and spring sports.
The MPSSAA’s plan calls for winter sports to run from Feb. 1 through March 27, fall from March 15 through May 8 and for spring to wrap up the year from April 26 through June 19.
Michael Duffy, the county’s supervisor of athletics, explained to the school board last week that a modified MPSSAA proposal could be approved later this month by the Maryland State Department of Education. That proposal moves up the winter sports start date to Dec. 7, helps to remove overlap from the seasons, and allows for more weeks of play.
The board received more than 500 responses about which plan to accept, according to information from the meeting’s agenda, and about 58% chose the MPSSAA’s plan ― either voting for the plan as is, or for the Dec. 7 start date should it get approved.
Some respondents didn’t like any of the options and said athletics should not be a priority right now, citing safety concerns. But board members said Wednesday they haven’t wavered from their stance that academics comes before any extracurricular activities.
“We’re definitely taking the feedback into account,” said Sivigny, who urged the board “to throw all of our weight behind trying to help in any way that we can get approval for the Dec. 7 start date.”
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Devanshi Mistry, the board’s student representative, said she talked to many fellow students within the last week. The majority said they want to play as soon as they can, Mistry said, but they’d be comfortable with following the state’s rules in hopes for a December start because it gives them more competition and a chance to experience postseason games.
The board asked Duffy if writing letters to state administrators in support of the Dec. 7 timeline would help the case, and Duffy responded with “absolutely.”
Singer wrote a letter for the board in support of the MPSSAA’s modified proposal, and Sivigny suggested sending similar messages to state superintendent Karen Salmon and the MSDE, will bolster the cause.
“I think as many groups who are in support of the Dec. 7 potential date, voicing that support to the state board of education ... it helps,” Duffy said. “I think showing a very united front, not just within Carroll County but across the state of Maryland, for what we believe is the best option of the available options for our students for the remainder of the school year.”