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Tomlinson: Through perfect storm of complications, school board listening to community | COMMENTARY

Last week, Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS) students in elementary and middle school were able to return to in-person learning in physical classrooms. As part of hybrid learning students have been divided into A and B cohorts. The A group receives in-person education on Mondays and Tuesdays while the B group engages in virtual learning. Both groups participate in virtual learning on Wednesdays to allow each school to be cleaned and sanitized. The groups swap spots on Thursdays and Fridays.

Only high school students have not returned for in-person instruction. On Oct.14, the Board of Education, under the recommendation of Superintendent Steven Lockard, voted to delay hybrid learning for high schoolers. These students will continue to learn exclusively from home and begin hybrid learning on Nov. 12 instead.

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Students, parents, CCPS staff, and Board members were disappointed and displeased with the delay. As parents of high schoolers, Board members Donna Sivigny and Tara Battaglia knew that their children would be let down that they would not start hybrid learning the week of Oct. 19. The public was left scratching their heads and were left to ponder why hybrid learning only pushed back for high schoolers.

Since the Board started discussing the possibility of bringing students back into the classroom for the 2020–21 school year, hundreds of teachers and staff began to apply for leave under one of several federal laws including the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans Disabilities Act, or the recently-passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act. As of Oct.14, 311 teachers and staff across the school system had been approved to take some version of leave authorized under one of these three federal statutes. Lockard confirmed that each leave request was carefully reviewed and not rubber-stamped. Of those 311 approved for leave, the majority of those who are teachers are still teaching virtually, but with a substitute assisting them in the physical classroom.

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However, for the teachers and staff whose leave does not require them to work in any capacity, CCPS has been forced to bring in qualified, long-term substitutes or new permanent teachers and staff. If adding a large number of new hires at one time with little turnaround sounds problematic, try adding the requirements of House Bill (HB) 486, that went into effect in July 2019, to the mix.  HB486 was designed to prevent child sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by requiring schools to do extensive background and employment history checks on any applicants who will have direct contact with minors. While the goal of the legislation is laudable, there is no doubt that it tacks on a significant amount of extra time to the hiring process, especially the time it takes other school systems to respond to CCPS with confirmation of an applicant’s employment history.

There is an additional layer of difficulty that comes with hiring teachers for high schools. For elementary and middle schools, it is far easier to find certified teachers. Hiring high school teachers, who teach credit-bearing courses, is much more difficult because CCPS has to find educators qualified to teach specific classes such as secondary science, foreign languages, or Advanced Placement courses. Hiring a new first grade language arts teacher is one thing, but finding a new German II teacher is an entirely different matter.

Due to this perfect storm of hiring complications, Carroll County’s high schools need a few more weeks before they are adequately prepared to open up for hybrid learning.

For some, starting the new hybrid schedule for high schoolers on the first day of the second marking period of the school year beginning on Nov. 12 is preferred. Devanshi Mistry, student representative to the Board of Education, stated at prior meetings that letting high schoolers finish out the first quarter virtually before starting hybrid instruction makes more sense. Dave Rapids, South Carroll Class of 2021 president, remarked, “Of course every kid wants to get back into a building and be with their friends, but contrary to what many have argued, virtual learning has helped a lot of students with their grades. This time has actually helped many, including myself, get a last-minute GPA boost for college applications.”

For high school students who are having trouble with virtual learning, Board member Kenny Kiler encourages students or parents to contact their school principal and request additional help from their teacher or a tutor.

For the thousands of students who did return to school in Carroll County, everything has gone smoothly and teachers, staff, students, and parents are pleased with hybrid learning so far. There have unfortunately been some bumps in the road with getting the high schools ready for hybrid education, but the Board of Education is listening to the community and making sure Carroll’s schools provide the best education for its students.

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