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Carroll County schools lay out virtual learning plan for next school year

Carroll County Public Schools are planning to offer a fully virtual learning option next school year for students who are unable to attend school in-person due to COVID-19 concerns.

The plan includes full-time learning for virtual students, a coach available to offer assistance and new courses for virtual secondary students.

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Half of the county’s public school students were participating in in-person learning on average since the school board voted to return to hybrid learning in January. By March 22, all students had the option of four days of in-person learning. Now, nearly three out of every four students attend school at least four days a week.

Jason Anderson, chief academics, equity and accountability officer, said in an email that families did reach out to the system asking about a virtual option for next school, though he wouldn’t call the number significant. The inspiration in developing the temporary program “was a result of CCPS wanting to be well-prepared to place all students in a position to be successful if this type of temporary accommodation was needed,” he added.

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Parents have expressed an interest in continued virtual learning — one parent started a Facebook group called “CCPS 100% Virtual Learning-Support & Discussion Group” which has 225 members.

The CCPS program is an expansion of the system’s current virtual program that existed prior to the pandemic, “but on steroids,” Gregg Bricca, director of virtual learning, said at a board of education meeting on Wednesday. More courses will be offered that will allow students to meet the minimum enrollment and graduation requirements to be a full-time virtual student.

The detailed proposal will be submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) for approval. Bricca said he expects the turn around to last about two weeks and plans to send information to parents by the beginning of June.

The secondary school program will be asynchronous. However, each middle and high school will have one Virtual Success Coach who will check-in with students daily, communicate with parents and school staff and assist in other areas. The elementary program will be synchronous five days a week.

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The school system will hire or assign virtual elementary teachers who are certified in the appropriate areas and will have the same responsibilities as in-person teachers: regular communication with parents and school personnel, preparing materials for instruction, reporting grades and keeping attendance. Virtual elementary students will have a dedicated instructional assistant and a dedicated counselor. All elementary staff will work from a school building.

Cindy McCabe, chief of schools, said they feel confident there won’t be so many virtual teachers who cannot be converted to classroom teachers the following year after the program ends.

Curriculum for virtual elementary students will include reading, math, science, social studies, music, physical education, health and media. The board approved a few new classes on Wednesday, like music, art and wellness, to be added to the secondary virtual curriculum. Bricca said the amount of courses provided is relatively small and they do not plan to offer their entire course catalog.

Virtual students will follow the school calendar, have the same quarters, semesters and school days. They will be required to take county and state assessments, which may necessitate students to come to a school building. The assessments will be compared with the scores of in-person learners to measure the effectiveness of the virtual program.

All virtual students will be given school-issued laptops, but internet access will not be provided. Those without internet will be given information on the nearest public facilities that offer connection, computers and printers.

Students with COVID-19 related medical concerns are eligible and must apply to participate. Their performance during the 2020-2021 school year will be considered and a decision regarding continued participation will be made at the end of each semester.

The fiscal impact of the program will depend on the number of student who participate, according to the report. The estimated cost for 1% to 5% of the entire student population will be approximately $2 million to $6 million for the 2021-2022 school year.

The report states staffing for 5% of elementary students would cost approximately $3.3 million. Staffing for secondary virtual students is expected to cost around $675,000 plus the $175,000 from converting some hourly instructional assistants to full-time employees. The system could spend $1.7 million to enroll 5% of secondary students in some of vendor-provided courses.

State and federal recovery funding is expected to cover the cost.

“Is this the best way to spend the money that we’d be getting from the state for recovery learning purposes?” board member Donna Sivigny asked during Wednesday’s meeting.

Superintendent Steve Lockard said her question boils down to how the district would use the funds if it did not move forward with the virtual plan. He said the system could “eat up” those funds by providing additional support for students in-person, like more counselors.

Chris Hartlove, the system’s chief financial officer, said if fewer students than expected show up for the virtual program, the savings would roll into some of the support initiatives Lockard mentioned.

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