The public participation segment at the beginning of Wednesday night’s Carroll County Board of Education meeting featured a handful of emotional pleas from people inside and outside of the school system, urging the board to reconsider its plan to begin hybrid learning next month out of concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and the workload on teachers.
After absorbing the latest data from the county’s top health official and getting a glimpse of Carroll’s revised protocol for reopening, however, the board is going forward with its previously voted-upon plan to have teachers back in schools in early October and the hybrid learning model for students starting two weeks later.
“I am very comfortable that the situation inside the schools is going to be the best possible situation,” said board member Ken Kiler. “I just think we need to try it, and hopefully everything falls in place and it works. But it’s a little scary.”
Carroll County Public Schools began the school year with online learning on Sept. 8. Teachers were strongly encouraged to teach from their classrooms. Certain small groups, such as some who attend the Carroll County Career and Technology Center, have since returned to school buildings.
The school board voted unanimously at its Aug. 26 meeting that hybrid learning would commence Oct. 19, meaning students will be able to attend school for in-person learning a few days a week with never more than half of the student population in school on any given day to ensure there is enough space for social distancing in classrooms.
The vote approved that: “On October 19, 2020, the schools will open, hybrid, as the state allows at that time. To properly prepare for this, and while continuing to teach enhanced virtual learning, teachers will be required to be in the buildings beginning October 5th. ... The Superintendent, Board and staff will continue to monitor the conditions, metrics, guidelines and all measures taken to ensure the buildings are safe, during this period and re-evaluate this plan, as needed.”
On Wednesday, the board viewed the most recent information from the Carroll County Health Department, which showed a decrease in positive COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks. Ed Singer, Carroll County Health Officer, told the board via video conference that with 16 cases this week, from Sunday through Wednesday afternoon “it seems that we’re continuing with that downward trend” as October approaches and the board’s proposed time to reopen gets closer.
Singer used the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metrics compared to the county health department’s goal of no more than 35 community cases per week for a few weeks before in-person school can resume. Singer said the combined data has Carroll County in a “moderate risk of transmission” category (though Gov. Larry Hogan’s metrics would have it in a higher risk, Singer said).
“When we’re talking about trying to get back in schools, I think trying to get to the point where we’re at a moderate risk of transmission is a reasonable place to be,” Singer said. “We’re never going to have zero risk. We can try and try and try to get to zero risk, but you’re never going to get there, so unless you’re planning on keeping schools closed ... there’s always going to be some level of risk.
“We’re going to see some cases, and we’re going to have to deal with those cases.”
About five teachers, parents, and other community members voiced their concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting about the upcoming hybrid learning plan.
One who identified herself as a teacher talked about the workload. Another about how difficult it will be to simultaneously be teaching to in-person and online special education students. Another, who identified herself as the daughter of a school administrator, said she has a rare form of a cancer and that it’s unfair to make her mother decide between doing her job and risking bringing home the coronavirus to someone who is immunocompromised. Another, who identified himself as a parent of CCPS students and a scientist, talked about how well online learning is going and about the probability of the disease getting into school buildings.
The board members listened, but, with guidance from the health department, are moving forward.
“I can’t tell you where we’re going to be on [Oct. 19],” Singer said. “But the trend statewide and the trend in Carroll County now seems to be heading in the direction that we could potentially be in that moderate risk of transmission when we get to that date. But we’re going to have to see.”
Singer said the school system’s ability to implement five key mitigation strategies will go a long way in limited the number of cases once hybrid learning is underway ― contact tracing in collaboration with the health department, consistent and correct use of masks, social distancing to the largest extent possible, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, and the cleaning and disinfection of the buildings.
School board president Donna Sivigny pointed to Singer’s saying the number of cases is likely to rise when facilities and areas reopen during the pandemic, and the goal from there is to manage that as efficiently as possible.
“That’s something that we should expect, if and when we open up the schools to a hybrid model,” she said. “There’s going to be a bit of a bubble early on, and we’re going to manage it down through contact tracing with local health department in the same way.”
The board also saw a presentation regarding reopening that detailed Carroll County Public Schools’ guidelines and practices that will be used when hybrid learning begins.
Exposure protocol was outlined, and a decision aid was discussed that included the definition of COVID cases and COVID-like illnesses and how school officials will be handling them in line with the Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland State Department of Education.
The presentation detailed how many days someone will be required to stay home between positive or negative tests, and whether they will need to isolate or be quarantined and for how long.
“If you don’t eventually start putting some of kids back in the classroom, the question is, is when do you start putting kids back in the classroom?” Singer said. “A lot of it has to do with what level of risk we’re willing to take. I think there’s a very tough balancing act that we’re all [dealing with].”
Teachers to take leave?
Carroll County is preparing for more than 230 educators to use some form of legal employee leave in order to be out of the schools when hybrid learning begins.
Director of Human Resources Chantress Baptist told the board there are more than 100 elementary school, close to 60 middle school, and more than 70 high school teachers ready to take leave effective Oct. 5 because they feel they could be directly impacted by the coronavirus.
That’s going to leave the county with a teaching void, and Superintendent Steven Lockard recognized the problem that lies ahead.
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“That has the potential to impact the continuity of instruction. We’re not going to find 200 teachers ready, out there on the streets that just haven’t found a job somewhere,” Lockard said. “That will present some challenges for us, and we’re going to need a lot of patience and flexibility from folks as we try to navigate through. There is not an easy answer to that.”