Exactly two months before the school year is scheduled to begin on Sept. 8, the Carroll County Board of Education held its first hybrid meeting with some board members and citizens attending and others chiming in virtually.
The logistics of reopening — or not — in the fall were the focus of the public comment that started off the meeting before the board got into administrative business.
Comments came in-person or submitted via email. Two employee unions sent representatives with reports from their own committees. More than one of the citizens who spoke said they represented advocacy organizations like Return2Learn Maryland Schools and the Facebook group Reopen Maryland Schools.
Their full comments are available in the video of the meeting which is archived on the CCPS Media Youtube channel. The first group of speakers appears at the start of the meeting and there is an additional speaker in the second comment session about 1-1/2 hours in.
Outside of those willing to put a name to their opinions publicly, board members and central office staff reported receiving hundreds of emails with opinions falling everywhere on the spectrum.
The majority of the speakers who attended in-person said they were in favor of a full return to schools, five days a week, citing the learning loss from virtual learning and the social benefits of being in school with peers and educators face-to-face.
Students who don’t have devices or strong internet access are falling behind and students who relied on school as a safe space from bad home situations are left without it. Special education students are facing greater challenges with distance learning than their peers, speakers said.
For working parents, the task of juggling childcare, help with schoolwork and their job duties has caused stress and even job loss, said Christina Olson, who identified herself as the founder of Return2Learn Maryland Schools.
If all of these are the concerns she is hearing from the people who do have the energy and resources to contact her, she speculated that the situation must be even more difficult for those whom she isn’t hearing from.
More than one speaker said they believe the evidence shows children do not get or transmit the virus and that school reopenings do not lead to spikes.
Katie Kirby, founder of local nonprofit Together We Own It, said the organization works with families facing trauma, poverty, and mental health challenges. She proposed a model where identified at-risk students could receive distance learning support and mental health check-ins through the support of community organizations.
“Ensuring that all kids have access to technology at home is equality. But providing children with difficult circumstances additional support and stability is equity,” she said
Public comments sent by email are posted on the school system’s website under “Board of Education” and “Public Comment.” These comments are not read aloud during the meeting, however.
In the online comments, Andrew Tucker asked several specific questions including how substitutes will be provided if teachers falls sick when there is already a shortage, or how teachers will enforce compliance with masks and other measures when rules around things like cell phone use and vaping have shown that this enforcement isn’t perfect.
“Are we asking teachers to choose between their job or ever seeing their elderly parent again at least until a vaccine is created? Or their medically vulnerable child? Or even putting themselves at risk if they are immunocompromised?” he wrote.
Two county employee unions, Carroll County Education Association (CCEA) and Carroll Association of School Employees (CASE) presented reports from the formal committees they created “to examine concerns and provide feedback to the school system.”
The CCEA report asks for “clear, specific guidelines” for employees who will be front-line workers, said Vice President Kelley McDonough. After the school system shared results of an employee survey at a previous meeting, CCEA also conducted a survey of more than 700 members.
“A staggering 49.8% of our members indicated that they were either very uncomfortable or uncomfortable returning to work and a full reopen,” she said. The group was prompted to send out their own survey because they said employees didn’t have enough information on whether their answers to CCPS’s previous survey represented a commitment.
The top three concerns from CCEA members included health and safety, the unwieldy workflows of teaching both virtually and face to face, and the cost and logistics of finding childcare for their own children, she said.
CASE President Diane Deal said their report focused on three areas: more communication as conditions in the schools change, a focus on operations and safety, and the ability for education support professionals to be consistently involved with their students’ learning. According to the report, inconsistent communication left many feeling sidelined in the quick move to distance learning.
After the comments, several board members thanked staff for working to make the in-person comment period possible.
“I know this wasn’t easy to do but I think people are so hungry to get some public input,” Kenneth Kiler said.
Said Tara Battaglia: “It’s gonna be hard, but we are listening. We want everyone to know that we are reading and listening to you, and we appreciate it.”
Superintendent Steve Lockard reiterated the requirements placed on CCPS as they make reopening decisions.
“Right now the state is in Phase II of the governor’s reopening plan. Whether we like it or not, in that phase, we couldn’t open schools fully even if we decided that today, because we were obligated to follow that, and comply with that.
“We get new information every day and we hear different information that that influences or adjusts or challenges our current thinking. I think that speaks to why the public input is so important ... we have to operate within those requirements, but all that input, all that information can help us try to get to the best place for kids and for everyone’s safety.”
CCPS plans to release a draft plan for reopening at the next board meeting, scheduled for July 15 at 5 p.m. and available to watch live on Channel 23 and at carrollk12.org. There will be a time for three-minute citizen comments at the beginning of the meeting. The procedures for speaking at the meeting are available on the school system’s website.
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A survey for the community is coming out the next day. It will give more room for open-ended comments and include an expanded survey for the student body.