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Howard school board approves schedule changes, switching two full days to half days next week

The Howard County Board of Education voted last week to switch two full school days to half days next week in order to provide educators with more time to prepare for the start of hybrid learning.

Feb. 25 and 26 are now half days instead of full days, per the board’s voted on Feb. 11. The two are the final school days for the fully virtual learning model and schedule the district has conducted since last April amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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On March 1, about 4,000 students will return to classrooms for the school system’s five-day-a-week learning model. The students invited to return early and for all five days are those the district has identified as most in need of in-person services.

The staff to support those students — such as custodians, food staff and some educators — were set to return to buildings Feb. 22. However, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano also said during the Feb. 11 meeting that staff won’t have to return to buildings until Feb. 24.

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The scheduling changes, according to the school system, will give teachers time on Wednesday — a day with no live teaching — as well as Thursday and Friday afternoons, after the half day schedule ends, to prepare their classrooms.

“[This] would provide school-based staff with much needed additional time to prepare for in-person instruction with students,” Ron Morris, the school system’s Area 3 performance director, wrote in a memo to the board. “A significant amount of effort is needed by staff to make the transition from virtual instruction to concurrent instruction. Providing staff with additional time will be extremely beneficial with these efforts.”

The transition of the two full school days to two half days will not lengthen the school year.

All students to remain eligible for free meals during hybrid learning

While the school system’s learning model and schedule will change March 1, the district’s meal program won’t.

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“From March 1 to [the end of] June, all 58,000 students in Howard County are eligible for free breakfast, free lunch, free snack and free supper regardless of their economic station in life,” said Brian Ralph, the district’s director of food and nutrition.

For students in school buildings, they will pick up their breakfast and eat it in their classrooms, while lunch will be in the cafeteria. For virtual students, grab-and-go pickup at schools will continue.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, school systems across the country have been tasked with the task of feeding children — a function that was less challenging when all students were in school buildings. The Howard school system, like others in the state, put together grab-and-go meal programs last spring for all students, and they were extended throughout the summer and in the fall as virtual learning continued.

Federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture then allowed the free meals to continue through this school year.

Board member raises concerns about vaccine letter sent to Gov. Hogan

During the Feb. 11 school board meeting, member Christina Delmont-Small spoke in opposition to the process the board used when sending a letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan earlier in the month.

On Feb. 3, the Howard County Board of Education sent a letter to Hogan urging him to provide more COVID-19 vaccine doses to the county for school system educators. The letter requested 20,000 vaccines by Feb. 15 to ensure the system’s nearly 10,000 staff members will be at least partially vaccinated by the start of hybrid learning on March 1.

“The educators of Howard County are ready and willing to return to the buildings,” reads the letter signed by board Chair Chao Wu. “A vaccination would allow them to focus wholly on the task of educating our children.”

Wu later said the letter was for “advocacy” and noted that not all members approved sending it.

Delmont-Small said she disagreed with the decision to send the letter to the governor in private and with only a “three-hour deadline.”

“There was no public discussion,” said Delmont-Small. “... If there’s going to be any position that this board takes, we should make the decision to take that position in public, and that was not done. Nor did board members have the opportunity to weigh in in a way within the deadline or even appropriately under the Open Meetings Act.”

The letter also wasn’t in accordance with how the vaccines are being distributed in the country and state, as the federal government and the state are distributing the vaccines proportionally. If Howard County were to receive additional vaccines simply to meet the board’s request, that means another jurisdiction would receive fewer vaccines.

“We continue to follow the science, and we agree with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] director that schools can safely reopen without vaccinating teachers,” Hogan spokesperson Mike Ricci wrote in an emailed response last week.

Also during the meeting:

  • The board also voted to accept a $200,000 reopening schools incentive grant from the Maryland State Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Act.
  • About 73% of the school system’s students have Chromebook laptops, Martirano said. All elementary school students and a majority of secondary students have them, as the school system has engaged in virtual learning since last April amid the pandemic.
  • Martirano announced multiple psychology awards during his opening remarks. The school system’s Department of Psychological Services recently received the Excellence in School Psychological Services Silver Award, which reflects the department’s work in supporting students’ mental health. The district is one of five in the country to receive the recognition. In addition to the national recognition, Martirano announced Dr. Jonathan Soloman was named the School Psychologist of the Year by the Howard County School Psychologists Association. Solomon has been with the district since 2002.
  • Martirano also announced that David Matchim, Centennial High School’s band director, was part of the Yamaha 40 under 40 in music education list for 2021. The distinction recognizes music educators who make a difference by growing and strengthening their music programs,” according to Yamaha’s website.

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