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Howard school board approves hybrid learning model with tiered reopening plan beginning March 1

Howard County students who want to return to school buildings will be able to starting in March or April.

The Howard County Board of Education unanimously approved a hybrid learning model Tuesday night that will begin rolling out March 1, with all students who want to be in school buildings returning by April 12.

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The return to systemwide in-person learning will come almost exactly a year after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered school buildings last March. The district’s 56,000 students have been learning online since last April.

“Is this hybrid model a perfect solution? No. But we must do everything possible to ensure our students begin receiving the in-person supports and services they have gone without for far too long,” Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said. “This is so critical for the betterment of our children. They are waiting for us.”

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The approval of a hybrid model is a change of course for the school board, which had voted in November to keep kids in virtual learning through at least mid-April. However, the board was spurred to action following Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement on Jan. 21 that he would explore consequences for school systems that didn’t get students back in classrooms by March 1.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions we have to make,” board Chair Chao Wu said. “We need to meet [state] requirements, prioritize the safety for our students, staff and community and provide the much needed in-school instructions. The plan is flexible and may have other changes over time. We have to adapt to many unknowns and uncertainties as a community, [and] we will get through this pandemic together.”

The plan will not require any student who does not want to learn in person to return to buildings. Every student will be offered a 100% virtual option, which would be an extension of the learning they’ve received since September.

The hybrid model utilizes an A-group/B-group plan, in which students are split up into two different groups. One group will learn in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other will be in school buildings on Thursdays and Fridays. When group A is in classrooms, group B will be learning virtually and vice versa. Educators will be teaching both their in-person and virtual students concurrently — a tactic that has concerned some board members and dismayed the president of the county’s teachers union.

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Wednesdays will remain for nonlive instruction and homework for all students, and planning and training for teachers.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks when in school buildings, and fewer students being in school buildings on a given day can allow for social distancing mitigation. Students and staff will be provided with three-ply masks.

“I know this may be concerning for our staff, and I want to assure the board, our staff, students and our community that safety will remain our top priority as we welcome students and staff back into our buildings,” Martirano said.

“We are prepared with the proper precautions and supplies. Students and staff will adhere to strict guidelines for [personal protective equipment] and social distancing. We must do everything possible to get our students back in schools this year and will then follow that up with a robust academic program for this summer to support recovery and acceleration of learning that builds to normalized school ... in the fall of 2021.”

The model splits students who opt in to the plan into four different groups to be phased in from March 1 through April 12.

The first phase will be made up of the district’s students who most need in-person learning, such as students with individualized educational plans and students who were invited by the school system in the fall to participate in in-person small group programs. These students, and the staff to assist them, will return March 1 and will be in school buildings five days a week.

The second phase, beginning March 15, includes students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first and second grade.

The third phase, set to start March 29, includes grades 3 through 6, 9 and 12, as well as students who participate in the county’s Applications and Research Laboratory.

The final phase is for students in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11. They can return to buildings in a hybrid plan on April 12.

The motion to approve the tiered return, which is slightly different from what the school system proposed to the board, ended in a 6-2 vote with members Yun Lu and Christina Delmont-Small, both of whom wanted students to return to classrooms quicker, voting against. Both Lu and Delmont-Small voted for the hybrid model later Tuesday night, while member Jolene Mosley and student member Zach Koung abstained on the hybrid vote.

“This is not going to be perfect, and we can’t expect it to be perfect. We’re in an imperfect time,” Delmont-Small said. “The plan that we have ... is going to be better for working families, but it’s not going to be perfect for working families. But we are moving in the right direction. I don’t want us to stand in the way of getting our students back to school for the parents who choose [that].”

The school system is now tasked with surveying all families to determine how many students will be opting out of the hybrid plan and will remain virtual for the rest of the academic year. The district will also survey its educators and staff to see who will decide to retire or take leave instead of returning to school buildings.

David Larner, the district’s chief human resources officer, said when the system surveyed staff last fall that 30% of staff would either resign, retire or take leave if told to return to school buildings.

During the board’s meeting last week, Colleen Morris, the president of the county teachers union, wrote in an email to members that the board’s discussions were “drastic and sudden.” Morris said in an email statement Tuesday that it’s important for the system’s educators to be vaccinated before returning to classrooms, something that Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman said Monday is not a guarantee and that Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary for public health, said last week should not be a factor in reopening decisions.

“In order to be successful and build trust among educators, any model needs to be underpinned by accelerating getting vaccines to educators and transparently implementing needed safety measures in all schools,” Morris wrote. “When educators are not assured those things, and when the metrics and plans change on a dime, it’s no wonder that many educators feel ignored and endangered.”

Martirano assured the board that the school system will continue monitoring the county’s coronavirus metrics, which are currently trending in a positive direction, as the March 1 date approaches. As of Tuesday, the county’s weekly rolling average new-case rate is 23.95 per 100,000 residents and the weekly positivity rate is 5.66%, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Both metrics are significantly better than they were two weeks ago but are also higher than the levels at which the World Health Organization and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention have identified would allow a community to loosen restrictions.

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Martirano said the health parameters the board approved in October — which included a positivity rate of less than 5% and average new-case rate fewer than 10 per 100,000 — will be a “consideration” but not the sole factor moving forward.

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“It’s important to note that the general county health metrics may not be representative of the school environment, so the [county’s] health department will help guide us on decisions to temporarily close a classroom or school due to outbreaks,” Martirano said.

While the hybrid model won’t begin until March 1, Martirano said he is still expecting fall sports to start on Feb. 13, pending the metrics allowing a return.

Finding a way to get students back in classrooms did not come easy for the divided board that has frequently tied on important votes in recent months.

The board originally voted in July to keep students in virtual learning through January.

In September, the school system began in-person small group programs to provide support to the district’s students who most needed it. The programs, such as those for students who are also parents or for students who especially struggled with virtual learning, were implemented at 26 schools. In November, though, the coronavirus numbers in the county, state and country spiked, and the programs were suspended.

Later that month, the board tied on multiple motions to give Martirano more time to develop a hybrid model, which led to a motion that passed with five votes to push back a return to classrooms to April 15 — the first day of fourth quarter. One of the issues multiple members had with the hybrid model in November was concurrent teaching — the same pedagogical method that was approved Tuesday.

“Educators also have serious concerns,” Morris wrote Tuesday, “about how teaching online and in person will be feasible, how it will increase their already heavier than usual workloads, and how it will impact their ability to focus on and individualize attention to all of the students in their classrooms, whether they are in person or virtual.”

Following the tied votes, some in the community were unhappy with the board’s makeup, in which the student member increases the number of votes to an even eight. Two parents filed a lawsuit to strip the student member — now Koung, a Howard High senior — of his voting rights; Martirano issued a scathing rebuke of online “bullying” of Koung; a Maryland delegate who represents parts of Howard County also has filed legislation to lessen the student member’s voting power.

Last week, the board was set to vote on multiple aspects of a hybrid model to prepare for a mid-April return. After Hogan’s press conference, though, Martirano pushed for an approval of a hybrid model for March 1 this week.

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