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Howard County school board approves fall reopening plan, will send to state Department of Education for review

The Howard County Board of Education on Thursday evening approved the school system’s reopening plan for the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year.

The approval comes three weeks after the school board voted for a learning model of 100% online instruction through at least January due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The school system can now submit the document to the Maryland State Department of Education ahead of the Aug. 14 deadline. Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education, as laid out by the state, has 13 requirements for school districts, which the school system and board discussed at the meeting Thursday. Those requirements include college and career readiness, Individualized Education Program protocols, attendance taking and safety protocols.

While the school system will submit the plans to state within the next week, Superintendent Michael Martirano said the plan is still not final. The academic year is set to begin Sept. 8.

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“There is still significant work and decisions that must be accomplished, and the comprehensive framework that you approve tonight will continue to be a living document,” Martirano said. “Efforts around limited in-person supports, opportunities for students who are absent, staffing adjustments, school orientations and back-to-school nights, athletics, device distribution and dozens of other items will continue.”

The board approved the plan, 7-1, with Christina Delmont-Small voting against. Delmont-Small was also the only dissenter in the mid-July vote to move to a virtual model through January.

“Unfortunately, I feel as though we as a community have not had enough time in order to properly vet this, so I will be voting no,” Delmont-Small said Thursday.

Throughout the meeting, board members asked questions about most of the 13 requirements and how the school system’s reopening plan is set to meet them.

Teachers will take attendance during live learning sessions, according to the plan. At the elementary level, the homeroom and math teachers will take attendance, while every teacher at the middle and high school levels will take attendance. Students who are experiencing challenges with their technology or internet can submit work done on their own to earn attendance.

On Wednesdays, when students are planned to receive no scheduled live instruction and have multiple hours of assignments to complete, attendance will be tracked by whether a student submits an assignment, engages in live support or tutoring with a teacher, or completes work in Canvas, DreamBox or Lexia Core5 — the school system’s online learning systems.

“There have been a lot of concerns in the community how attendance would be handled for parents who can’t get their children on for [scheduled learning] and how that will be calculated,” board member Kirsten Coombs said. “I know that our community has a huge concern for our elementary schools for getting online and that it’s so time-consuming and the amount of screen time children have.”

Another question that multiple board members asked was about the possibility of having some in-person learning groups, specifically for special education students and students who have Individualized Education Programs. William Barnes, the school system’s chief academic officer, said the central office is considering safety measures and staffing requirements that would be necessary for any form of in-person learning groups.

“We’ve been working closely with our bargaining units to have conversations about which student groups might be feasible to bring in and to discuss staffing considerations about what staff would be eager to come in or not willing to come in,” Barnes said.

Colleen Morris, president of the county teachers’ union, responded with data from a survey the Howard County Education Association gave to its membership this week. Of about 3,300 respondents, only 24% would volunteer to work in school buildings with students in small groups.

The reopening plan also laid out the school system’s “Grab-and-Go” meals plan for the upcoming school year. Unlike the spring and summer when meals were available for all students, only those who qualify for the Free and Reduced Meals Program, or FARMs, are eligible for the free meals, which is how student lunches are managed during a normal school year.

After the coronavirus pandemic closed school buildings in mid-March, the district provided a free meals program to any student in the county who went to a meals site. For the upcoming academic year, meals will be offered at all 76 Howard County schools four days a week.

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Lastly, the school system provided a timeline for its upcoming decisions about how Howard County students will learn in the second semester, which begins Feb. 1. The school system will finalize criteria for hybrid and face-to-face models by Oct. 22 and present the models to the board Nov. 19.

The board’s last scheduled meeting before the start of the 2020-21 school year is set for Aug. 18.

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