Nearly the entirety of Wednesday night’s Board of Education meeting saw Carroll County Public Schools officials and staff members, a health department spokesperson and a county commissioner telling board members, essentially, the following.
No, the number of COVID-19 cases in Carroll County are not at the level that had been hoped prior to reopening schools. No, there’s not really any good way to replace the 300 or so teachers planning to take leave when in-person learning resumes. No, the consensus is that both operationally and for health reasons, beginning hybrid learning and high school sports at the same time is not something we endorse.
Who wasn’t heard from on Wednesday night, of course, were the parents and students most affected by the decisions the board needs to make — who BOE members, undoubtedly, hear from all the time. They, presumably, are in favor of going forward with the planned Oct. 19 reopening of schools and accepting the state’s offer to allow high school sports to start practicing Oct. 7 for games beginning Oct. 27.
'I’m trying to take the attitude of, ‘we can do this,’ not ‘we can’t do this.’ A lot of this discussion is all the reasons why we’re struggling," BOE President Donna Sivigny said at the meeting. “I’m trying to turn this into how can we make this happen.”
We know from previous meetings and a letter sent to the board that Health Officer Ed Singer would like to see fewer coronavirus cases before reopening schools and is against starting high school sports this week with hybrid learning just two weeks away.
Singer advised the board during the summer that he thought 35 weekly community cases would be an acceptable number for Carroll to reopen schools. The board has been taking a more comprehensive look at metrics and targeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that 42 total cases per week would put Carroll into the “moderate” risk category.
But Carroll has seen 42 or fewer cases in only two of the past 12 weeks, more than doubling that number three times. Commissioner Dennis Frazier, a nonvoting member of the BOE, questioned board members about whether they were lowering their standards. Superintendent Steve Lockard said he is “concerned” about reopening while in the “higher risk” category.
Singer’s letter “highly discouraged” bringing back sports with the hybrid opening of schools set for Oct. 19. “If we truly want to return students to the classroom and keep schools open, we need to focus first on reopening academic programming in a safe manner," he wrote.
Meanwhile, a good portion of the meeting was spent talking about solutions to the potential loss of some 15% of the CCPS teaching force, planning to take leave under various federal acts. Tom Hill, director of middle schools, called this, “probably the greatest challenge that we are facing right now.”
Near the end of the meeting, Sivigny asked everyone, regarding the Oct. 19 date: "Are we backing off of that at all?”
Board member Patricia Dorsey said it should be dependent on the metrics, noting, “We certainly want it to be in that moderate range.”
Lockard suggested not setting that date in stone.
“I think we have to have some flexibility available to us,” he said. “I’m hoping we can be creative and overcome some of those challenges, but I also need to be realistic about the program we want to provide in the hybrid model. ... It’s not going to be as easy as saying, ‘Everybody’s coming back on October 19th,’ as we’ve wrestled with all night.”
Stay tuned. The next meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 7. We urge the board not to put off the decision on sports any longer and to embrace Lockard’s call for flexibility about Oct. 19. If another two weeks gets Carroll in a better place regarding risk level and gives CCPS more time to solve the teacher leave dilemma, we see no reason to adhere to an arbitrary date.