It is said that the hardest thing and the right thing are often the same. That isn’t helpful for school systems across the state and the country faced with decisions so difficult that even figuring out which is the hardest is not possible.
The Board of Education made the decision over the summer that Carroll County Public Schools students would return to school buildings Oct. 19 under a hybrid model designed to allow social distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The board members have stuck with that date even as the key measure of weekly coronavirus cases in Carroll never dropped to the level they and health officials had hoped. In fact, on the eve of schools reopening, it’s about double the goal, though still well within the range that’s acceptable for a limited return according to state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
At public hearings, in emailed messages, on social media, the public’s division about schools reopening is on full display, from those adamantly against sending any kids to school any time soon to those passionately demanding all students be allowed to return immediately.
The headline coming out of Wednesday night’s BOE meeting was the decision to follow Superintendent Steve Lockard’s recommendation to delay the hybrid reopening of high schools until Nov. 12, saying opening immediately would jeopardize academic integrity. Another difficult decision, it infuriated high school students and their families who were days away from returning to schools, sending a new round of criticism toward Lockard, the board and the teachers taking federal leave whose absence contributes to the inability to adequately staff classes. The staffing situation changes daily — another 50 leave requests were submitted in the week leading up to the meeting. Nobody wants personnel who will be interacting with students to be brought in without thorough background checks. And starting wouldn’t make sense if numerous students had to be sent home because no one was available to teach or staff their classrooms.
Ultimately, this 3 1/2-week delay will mean nothing. If high schools reopen under a hybrid model next month and continue uninterrupted, leading to a full reopening and in-person proms and graduations next spring, starting a few weeks later than the younger students will be forgotten. If the elementary and middle school reopening does not go well, those complaining loudest will be glad they weren’t a part of it.
The decision about whether and when to reopen schools was never going to be a situation where compromise could lead to consensus making everyone happy. There’s a good reason for that. While stakes are always high because leaders are making choices that affect the future of individuals and communities, decisions about redistricting or how to improve test scores don’t compare to balancing students' mental and emotional health, not to mention potential learning difficulties that could take years to overcome, against the physical health of students, teachers, their families and the community, not to mention a logistical nightmare.
Perhaps the easiest route is the one most of Carroll’s neighbors are taking. Howard and Frederick counties are among the many school systems nowhere near reopening. But is that the right course?
If hybrid works, if students get back to classes, interacting with teachers and friends, learning in the traditional manner and returning to a semblance of normalcy without causing widespread outbreaks, not only should it improve their mental and emotional states but it should give them a leg up academically on their counterparts throughout the state. If it doesn’t work, the consequences could be dire.
Everyone has an opinion. But no one has a foolproof solution for this unprecedented situation. Unfortunately, Carroll’s decision to reopen schools can only be judged in hindsight, strictly based on its success or lack thereof.