With just under three months until students are scheduled to return for the 2020-21 school year, many staff members and families across the state are asking what schools will look like for students in the fall.
The reality is that schools may look different for each county in Maryland because student needs and local resources vary greatly. I am going to outline how we in Howard County will approach redesigning our teaching and learning processes in preparation for classes to resume, in some form, in the fall. I want families and stakeholders to understand the process and trust that the solution will be thoughtful and intentional, and that it will take into consideration the needs of all students, staff and families.
Known unknowns: It has been nearly three months since Maryland school buildings were last open. At that time, we understood very little about COVID-19 and county, state and national leaders made the decision to close much of the country — including school buildings — to protect the health of citizens. Since that time, we have learned quite a lot about the coronavirus and tremendous work is being done each day by medical experts toward creating a vaccine and other solutions that will help protect our communities — particularly the most medically vulnerable among us. The state and county are showing encouraging signs of reopening. With nearly three months until the scheduled start of the fall semester, I suspect our reality at that time will look different than the current state, perhaps significantly. The best we can do at this point is prepare for a wide array of possibilities for the return to schools and then progressively narrow the scope as we learn more throughout the summer.
Continuity of learning: The current Howard County Public School System Continuity of Learning plan was built to carry on teaching and learning through the end of the current school year. It was not built in anticipation that it would be the solution moving into the next school year. We recognized as it was being developed that a far more robust and long-term solution will be needed in anticipation of the continued impact of COVID-19 into the fall. I can assure the entire school community that the solution implemented this fall will look different than the current Continuity of Learning solution.
State guidance: Much of our work continues to be guided by the Maryland State Department of Education. In May, the state released Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan For Education, which provides several considerations that local districts could potentially integrate into their plans. We are taking all possibilities outlined by the state — and others — into our planning considerations.
Prioritizing health and safety: The primary consideration for our plan will continue to be the health and safety of our students and staff. We will not implement a solution that increases risk for people in our schools or counters the guidance provided by health officials. At the same time, these considerations have tremendous operational impacts. For instance, adhering to 6-foot social distancing measures would mean school buses may have to run with only 10 people onboard, including the driver. Social distancing in school buildings would also carry numerous operational challenges, such as tight hallways, doorways leading into the building, cafeterias, bathrooms and classrooms. All of these factors will be taken into consideration with the top priority being the health and safety of our students and staff.
2020-21 school year
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An internal group of Howard school system staff representing all aspects of the organization has been convened to lead the development of a comprehensive solution for the 2020-21 school year. This group is still in the very early stages of their work but have been charged with several considerations.
Equity in implementation: Staff will develop a comprehensive plan that considers the needs of all students, staff and families. There may not be a single solution for the entire school system as detailed in the state education department’s plan, but, instead, a culmination of several solutions to ensure students are best served based on their individual needs. For instance, many high school students could reasonably participate and thrive in a typical distance-learning model. While this may suit some students quite well and could be implemented for those students, it will not adequately serve all high school students and may not be an ideal solution for elementary and middle school students, for whom other solutions would better serve their needs.
Diversity of voice: I am very confident in the work that will be done by the team of school system staff tasked to lead this effort. Part of their charge has been to consider the plan through multiple lenses so it will be important to have wide and diverse stakeholder input. At the appropriate times through the summer, staff will be reaching out and connecting with families, students, community groups, staff representative groups and other county stakeholders to gather input on the solutions being considered.
Flexibility of implementation: One constant throughout this pandemic is that everything is subject to change in a moment’s notice. So much has already changed since March 13 when we were last in our school buildings, and we must begin to prepare for an environment that may take any of multiple forms. To create a fall solution based on the current state would be shortsighted. Instead, we are beginning now to plan ahead, but incorporating flexibility into our planning to allow for ambiguity, meaning the final plan may not ultimately be completed until later in the summer. In the meantime, families and staff will be provided with updates and information throughout the summer to have a sense of what the fall semester will look like.
Comprehensive considerations: School has become an environment that entails much more than teaching and learning. For many students, school is where they receive their most — or only — nutritious meals. In recent years, we have placed more emphasis on the mental health and well-being of students and staff and have placed additional staff and resources in schools to tend to these important factors. Our experience has taught us that a student who is hungry, feels unsafe or is struggling with their mental health can’t reasonably be expected to thrive academically. This pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home order has eliminated these critical supports for many of our students. The solution moving forward must include finding ways to provide these services for students so they are prepared to learn and grow.
My priority is always to lead the Howard school system with love, care and compassion. This priority will continue to be critical as we seek to serve all students, including those who may be on the wrong side of gaps to access and opportunity. These are unprecedented times, and the comprehensive solution that will be implemented this fall will also be unprecedented. I appreciate the understanding and input extended by the Howard County community. Your partnership will be essential as we embark on the next phase of school in a COVID-impacted environment.
The writer is the superintendent of the Howard County Public School System.