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Carroll County school board reaffirms plan for in-person instruction, despite recent COVID-19 case uptick

With concessions that hybrid learning will not be perfect and might get “messy,” Carroll County Board of Education members reaffirmed during a Wednesday night meeting that they’re committed to reopening school buildings under a hybrid model Oct. 19.

“It’s hard, but it’s a good step and it’s an exciting step,” board member Kenneth Kiler said. “This is a transition that has to happen.”

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Superintendent Steve Lockard, county Health Officer Ed Singer and county Commissioner Dennis Frazier, a nonvoting member of the board, all expressed some concern about moving forward while Carroll County remains in the “high risk” level of COVID-19 transmission within school buildings, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. But data also indicates there have been no coronavirus-related deaths among community members since mid-August and that intensive care bed use at Carroll Hospital has remained below 10 — considered acceptable by the health department — every day but one in the past three weeks.

“When we’re looking at the overall picture, there’s a lot of positives,” school board President Donna Sivigny said. "We’re not necessarily where we’re all very comfortable yet, but there’s never a situation where you’re going to have zero risk, right? So, when you look at the big picture, I think we’re in a reasonable spot.

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“We already had taken the vote to open on Oct. 19, and I’m not seeing anything that would change my opinion on that.”

Singer’s guidance from the beginning had been that he would be comfortable with endorsing schools reopening once Carroll was seeing an average of five new community cases per day, or 35 per week. CDC guidance called for 42 total cases per week — including cases from congregate living facilities such as nursing homes, though there have only been six since Sept. 1 — for the county to be in a “moderate” risk category. Carroll hasn’t seen those type of numbers since August, with 63 cases last week and 43 this week through Thursday, according to health department data.

“I was really hoping I was going to be sitting here with you guys this week saying that we are in a moderate risk category and that I’d be completely comfortable with things reopening, but we can’t always be in our comfort zones,” Singer said. “If I knew when we would get to a moderate risk of transmission, I’d be sitting here telling you maybe we ought to wait for that. However, I don’t have any way of telling you that. ...

“That doesn’t mean you all can’t decide to go forward with your plan and go back [to schools], it just makes your decision a little more difficult. You have a tough decision now balancing the higher risk of transmission in schools vs. your mission to educate the children in the Carroll County school system and you all need to decide if this is an acceptable level of risk for you.”

Said Lockard: “Mr. Singer, I do share your views on some of these metrics, which concern me, but I also recognize the board’s interest in moving forward with the hybrid.”

Singer noted that the more cases are in the wider community, the more cases CCPS will see.

The board members, Singer and Carroll County Public Schools staff discussed protocols and how contact tracing will work.

Frazier said he has visited numerous schools and didn’t get the sense that everyone is on the same page.

“If you have the plans in place, I don’t think the schools know about them,” he said. “One thing I was told by every school I went to is that plans change from week to week, sometimes day to day. They’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Lockard said teachers haven’t been fully back in buildings yet, so there will be much discussion about procedures next week as they prepare for students to return. He cited the success of small groups, such as Carroll County Career and Technology Center students and special educations students, who have already returned.

With principal David Watkins, left, Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, visits an Autism classroom taught in person by Meg Heaney, right, at Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead on Tuesday, Oct. 6. In Carroll County, small groups of students in special education, career and technology and other programs have returned to buildings. On Oct. 19, CCPS plans to allow all students to return to school buildings under its hybrid model.
With principal David Watkins, left, Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, visits an Autism classroom taught in person by Meg Heaney, right, at Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead on Tuesday, Oct. 6. In Carroll County, small groups of students in special education, career and technology and other programs have returned to buildings. On Oct. 19, CCPS plans to allow all students to return to school buildings under its hybrid model. (Dylan Slagle)

“We’ve been working on these plans since June, in earnest, in terms of protocols and procedures," Lockard said. “You’re right, guidance does change, sometimes weekly.”

Under the hybrid model, half of all students will be able to attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. As of last week, about one-third have said they will opt to remain in an online-only format.

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Frazier also said he has talked to a number of teachers who have told him, some with tears in their eyes, about 12- and 14-hour workdays, and said “they just feel overwhelmed” and that the hybrid model will force them to teach to two different audiences, possibly not measuring up to the current online mode.

“Anytime we switch, there’s going to be adjustments,” Lockard said. “Commissioner Frazier, I agree 100%. Our teachers are working incredibly hard and they’re doing amazing things. ... I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s a piece of cake."

He pointed out that as he has walked through the Career and Tech Center, Gateway School and some other schools that have incorporated special educations students, he has seen teachers using technology and simultaneously meeting the needs of the students in front of them and online.

A week ago, much of the school board’s meeting time was spent discussing the nearly 300 teachers who have said they plan to take a leave of absence when hybrid learning begins rather than to return to school. Chief of Schools Cindy McCabe said Wednesday the system has “made a lot of progress” in filling vacancies.

Frazier asked what was meant by “progress” and how many substitutes they had to cover the 288 or so teachers who plan to take leave. Chantress Baptist, human resources director, said they now have about 70 permanent substitutes and are “aggressively” working on expanding their substitute pool.

Sivigny praised the work of administrators and teachers and those behind the scenes to get CCPS to where it is, poised to reopen. She called reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic one of the greatest challenges the school system will ever face.

“From a logistical standpoint, it’s going to be a little messy for a little while, while we’re in hybrid, just because this is new and this is different,” she said. “But it’s so important to make progress. We can’t let perfection get in the way of progress.”

Board member Tara Battaglia said she is confident and asked for positivity from the public.

“There was a lot of pushback when we had to go to virtual in the spring: ‘It’s not going to work.’ And we made it work. And then in the fall, how difficult it was going to be. And we made it work,” she said. "We’re going to work it out. There are going to be hiccups, and we’ll work it out from there. "

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NOTE: Bus routes and schedules are posted on the Carroll County Public Schools website.

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