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Howard County school board mulls hybrid reopening plan for the spring semester amid coronavirus pandemic

The Howard County Board of Education discussed the school system’s proposed hybrid reopening plan for the spring semester amid the coronavirus pandemic during its meeting Thursday night.

The plan presented by the school system includes two days of in-person school and three days of virtual learning starting in February. The plan presented Thursday is not official; the board will vote on a hybrid learning model Nov. 19.

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Students would be split into two different groups, with one group learning in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group back in school buildings on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will continue to be self-guided learning assignments for students and planning for teachers.

“Our ideal instructional model would be to have all students return to school buildings to receive face-to-face instruction and support,” Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said. “... The development of the hybrid instructional delivery model that is both flexible for an ever-changing health landscape and sustainable for the foreseeable future is a very difficult task to accomplish.”

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Under the plan, students would not be forced to return to classrooms if their parents don’t want them to be in school buildings. Those students can continue with a fully virtual model, and teachers will be expected to teach both their in-person and virtual students at the same time. In-person students will still use their district-provided laptops for most of their in-person classes.

Member Chao Wu questioned why students will be learning on their Chromebooks laptops even when they’re in school, likening it to the virtual learning students are currently receiving. Jennifer Novak, the school system’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said students would need their laptops when they’re in school so teachers can develop lesson plans that can reach both in-person and virtual students.

“We have a challenge in that we have limited staffing and we need to accommodate both students who are learning virtually and those who are coming in person at the same time,” Novak said. “The teacher is then responsible for teaching them simultaneously.”

Students are currently receiving 12 to 16 hours of live instruction a week. In the hybrid model, students would receive between 22 and 24 hours. When schools functioned normally, students received about 24 to 30 hours of in-school learning a week

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Desks in classrooms and at lunch would be distanced 6 feet apart, and masks would be required with few exceptions, according to the school system.

The model — also known as an A-group/B-group schedule — is set up to balance the benefits of students learning in person with the risks of coronavirus transmission. For example, the hybrid model allows for fewer students in schools on a particular day, which would increase the efficacy of social distancing.

To ease into the model, every student who opts into the hybrid plan would return to the classroom in the first week of February. Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first- and second-grade students would return to elementary school classrooms, while sixth graders and high school freshmen would return to their secondary schools. Two weeks later, on Feb. 16, the district’s other eight grades would return to school buildings.

“As we’re hearing from parents, students and mental health experts, having our kids at home is not doing them any favors. Some of our students need to desperately need to get back into the classroom,” member Christina Delmont-Small said. “The question is: How do we get to the point to address those students as well as the students where virtual works better?”

The school day’s start and end times would return close to what they were during the 2019-20 academic year before the pandemic. The only change is schools would start 20 minutes later than normal, meaning high school would begin at 7:45 a.m., middle school at 8:25 a.m. and elementary school at 9:45 a.m.

Member Kirsten Coombs said she agrees with the grouped hybrid model, but she disagrees with starting elementary schools at 9:45 a.m.

“I’m really not happy about the 20-minute delay on the start times,” Coombs said. “We already have elementary schools start at 9:25 [a.m.]. To have them start at 9:45 [a.m.] and go until 4:15 [p.m.], I’d really want to see an in-depth analysis of the transportation guidelines that are doing that. [Starting at] 9:45 [a.m.] is not workable for a working parent.”

Student member Zach Koung agreed with Coombs and asked the school system to consider flipping the start times for high schools and elementary schools, which could keep the bus schedule intact.

“We are trying to respond to the parents who have talked about the early start times of our schools by moving the start times up 20 minutes totally,” Martirano responded. “We want to address the sleep issues [for high school students] we’ve heard about over the last several years.”

In addition to mask-wearing and social distancing, the school system listed about 10 other safety guidelines for students and staff in school buildings, including Plexiglas in some areas, extra cleaning on Wednesdays, hand sanitizer and limited seating on buses. Physical education and related arts courses, such as dance, art, band, orchestra and chorus, would take extra precautions.

The school system has been in a fully virtual model since late April after schools originally closed on March 13 because of the pandemic.

In July, the board approved a 100% virtual instruction model through at least January. In October, Martirano reiterated that the school system would maintain its virtual learning model through the end of January. The school system is, however, offering some face-to-face programs in 19 schools to the district’s students who need them most.

During the board’s Thursday meeting, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan expressed concern regarding the worsening coronavirus metrics in the state. Hogan urged residents to not “let our guard down,” but he did not enact any additional restrictions.

Two weeks ago, the board approved health parameters the school system will follow when making reopening decisions in the future. To move into a hybrid model for the second semester, the board determined that the seven-day positivity rate in Howard County — which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week — should be less than 5% and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate should be under 10.0 per 100,000.

Also while the meeting was underway, Howard County reported the second-highest number of daily positive COVID-19 cases Thursday as the county confirmed 82 new cases, according to the Maryland Department of Health. The highest recorded number in the county was 83 positive cases on May 23.

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The county’s seven-day rolling average new-case rate was 10.4 per 100,000 on Wednesday — the first time since Sept. 9 in Howard County that the metric has been above the school system’s future hurdle of 10.0. However, the seven-day positivity rate in Howard County is 3.19%, well below the school system’s bar but slightly higher than it’s been the last several months.

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“The increasing number of positive cases locally and at the state level has required adjustments and shifts,” Martirano said. “Just this week, my counterparts in neighboring districts have had to delay or change their reopening and in-person small group support implementation.”

In addition to the worsening metrics in the county, a private school in Howard County is briefly halting its hybrid model and is going back to fully virtual learning. Three Glenelg Country School students tested positive for the coronavirus last week, which led the Ellicott City-based private school to close its school buildings, move to virtual learning and cancel all in-person activities this week, including athletics.

Prior to the board’s vote on the hybrid model on Nov. 19, the school system will host a virtual town hall on Monday.

The meeting on Nov. 19 will be the last for the current school board. Three new members — Antonia Barkley Watts (District 2), Jolene Mosley (District 3) and Yun Lu (District 5) — are likely to be sworn in on Dec. 7. The three women, in addition to incumbent Delmont-Small in District 1, are all in position to win their general election races. Incumbent Jen Mallo’s narrow lead over Sezin Palmer in District 4 is still too close to determine a winner with thousands of mail ballots left to be counted. Current Vice Chair Vicky Cutroneo and member Wu will remain on the board through 2022, serving as the first two at-large members in the new system since they won the most votes in 2018.

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