The Howard County school system is now aiming to get students back in classrooms in a hybrid learning model on March 1, said Superintendent Michael Martirano during the school board’s meeting Thursday night.
The school board had voted multiple times late last year to stay in virtual learning through mid-April, but Martirano’s statement shortly followed Gov. Larry Hogan’s surprise announcement Thursday that he would explore consequences for school systems that didn’t get students back in classrooms by March 1.
“An internal decision has been made to devote all our capacity to focus on the arena of getting our schools ready for hybrid, bringing our staff back at a particular time in February and to begin a solid implementation of a hybrid model on March 1,” said Martirano.
While the board did not approve a specific hybrid model Thursday, it did vote to confirm the model will include concurrent teaching — with educators providing in-person and virtual instruction simultaneously — and a full-day system instead of a partial-day plan.
The school system’s more than 56,000 students have been learning online since last April after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered school buildings 10 months ago.
“It’s incredibly important that we get back to face-to-face in our schools as soon as possible, obviously metrics allowing, and now we have the overlay of the governor,” said board member Christina Delmont-Small.
The work session Thursday began with Martirano’s timeline change, which also included rolling back recent moves the school system implemented.
He canceled the return of the district’s in-person small group programs, which were set to return in February. The programs, which began in the fall but were suspended in November as the county’s coronavirus numbers spiked, were for the school system’s students who are most in need of in-person support.
Martirano also suspended the small changes made Wednesday to the district’s learning schedules, which included 20 more minutes of writing instruction for elementary students and earlier start times for middle and high school students.
“Although those are seen as positive enhancements, I do not want to create any other disruptions to the school system,” Martirano said about rolling back the adjustments. “The school system and staff can only absorb so much change.”
The board then discussed with school system staff how concurrent teaching would work and how different partial-day models compare to a full-day model.
Concurrent teaching was one of several concerns the board had in November when it rejected the school system’s proposed hybrid model by a vote of 7-1. In the A-group/B-group plan, students are split up into two different groups, with one group learning in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group in school buildings on Thursdays and Fridays. When group A is in classrooms, group B is learning virtually, and vice versa.
“I must admit, speaking to educators here in Howard County about how they feel about doing both in person and virtual at the same time, I don’t know how that’s possibly going to work out,” said former board Chairperson Mavis Ellis at the November meeting. Ellis, along with members Sabina Taj and Kirsten Coombs, left the board in December after new members Antonia Barkley Watts, Jolene Mosley and Yun Lu were sworn in following their election victories.
During the November meeting, 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.
Multiple members during the November meeting raised questions about the extension of virtual learning, which wasn’t based on the then-ballooning coronavirus numbers since the board had previously approved in October the health parameters it will follow before reopening school buildings. It is unclear whether the school system will continue following these metrics now following Hogan’s announcements Thursday.
Then 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 Howard High senior Zach Koung — of his voting rights; Martirano issued a scathing rebuke of online “bullying” of Koung; a Maryland delegate who represents parts of Howard County filed legislation to lessen the student member’s voting power
Despite concerns about concurrent teaching, the board voted unanimously on Thursday, with Mosley and Koung abstaining, to approve the method for the hybrid model.
“We have determined [concurrent teaching] is the most effective model to assist our students and our families and maintain our level of instructional quality,” Martirano said.
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The board also unanimously approved a full-day model as the framework for the hybrid plan instead of a partial-day system; Koung abstained.
Mosley then wanted to allow the superintendent to also consider a partial-day plan. The vote failed 4-3-1, with members Vicky Cutroneo, Delmont-Small and Lu voting against and Chairperson Chao Wu abstaining.
During the meeting Thursday night, Colleen Morris, the president of the county teachers union, emailed the union’s members about the “drastic and sudden changes” the board was discussing. Morris said during the November meeting that concurrent teaching is “impossible.”
In her email, Morris also referenced vaccinations for educators as a necessity for a return to school buildings. Martirano said Thursday he can’t guarantee every educator who wants the COVID-19 vaccine can get both shots, which are administered three weeks apart, before March 1.
“Vaccinations were just made available to educators during Phase 1B, but the system can’t guarantee the timeline for vaccinating all staff,” Morris wrote in the email. “The board can and should ensure educators and staff are fully immunized before returning to buildings.”
The board will reconvene for work sessions on Monday at 4:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 4 p.m. The meeting Tuesday is expected to end with a vote on a hybrid model.
An approval of a hybrid model on Jan. 26 would give the school system five weeks to prepare for a return to classrooms on March 1 — two weeks shorter than the seven-week time period Martirano has said is adequate for a smooth transition.