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With three new members, Howard County school board doubles down on remaining virtual through mid-April

A little less than month after the Howard County Board of Education voted to keep students in virtual learning until at least April 14 because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, board member Vicky Cutroneo attempted to create more flexibility for a possible reopening date.

At a board meeting Monday, Cutroneo raised a motion that would have authorized Superintendent Michael Martirano to make a reopening decision “based on metrics and operational capacity” in relation to coronavirus data in the county.

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The motion failed 4-4, despite the backing of Martirano, who said he was “pleading” with the board to reconsider a hybrid teaching model in January because data could change, particularly if plans for the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine become clearer in a month.

The vote followed the swearing in of three new school board members — Jolene Mosley, Antonia Barkley Watts and Yun Lu.

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“I want us to look at metrics and capability to guide our reopening decisions, not a date and time,” Cutroneo said before the vote. “I want to revisit the vote from last time with this board because any decision that we make needs to be done way ahead.”

Mosley, who voted against Cutroneo’s motion, said she favors more work sessions on reopening but wanted to keep the April date in place until the board approves a new hybrid plan.

“We don’t have an active or working approved model yet on what a return looks like,” said Mosley, who won the District 3 seat on the board in the November election. “I don’t think the decision has to be made right now to take a solid point date where parents and families can plan since we don’t have a model yet.”

Before the start of the meeting, Chao Wu was selected as the school board’s new chairperson and the new members were sworn in. Wu, who was elected in 2018, is the first Asian American to lead the board.

Jen Mallo was voted as the board’s vice chairperson over Cutroneo, who had served as the secondary leader for the past year.

At the meeting Nov. 16, the last for exiting members Mavis Ellis, the chairperson, Sabina Taj and Kirsten Coombs, the board voted to reject a proposed hybrid learning model — featuring in-person and virtual teaching — and to extend virtual learning into April. On Monday, with three new members, the board reiterated that stance.

Lu sided with Cutroneo in seeking greater flexibility for setting a reopening date, while Mosley and Watts did not.

Christina Delmont-Small also voted for Cutroneo’s motion, while Mallo and student member of the board Zach Koung voted against it.

“I want to bridge back to normalcy as soon as possible,” Mallo said, “but repealing this without something to replace it with is arbitrary. My worry [with the motion] is that we’d head down that direction today.”

Martirano, however, said he is troubled by the April 14 date, calling it “random” and “not dictated by the metrics.”

“It just coincides with the third quarter, and I understand that decision,” he said. “But what if we find ourselves in March and we’re able to do things before then? That [date] should not preclude us from [considering reopening].

“I need to have the flexibility to come to the board to make that decision. I would not want to be put in the position where we’re ready a month in advance and we’re not doing anything because of that artificially set date.”

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Cutroneo argued that her motion would give students and families the hope of possibly reopening before April 14. While the current coronavirus numbers in the county are worse than ever and are far above the standards set by the board in October for future reopening decisions, it’s possible that the numbers will improve before mid-April and that the national vaccine rollout lowers the risk of transmission.

“I don’t think this is responsible of the board,” Cutroneo said. “It’s not following the science. It’s as if we know better than everybody else when we’re making these decisions.”

Watts, however, said providing families with a solid date is stabilizing during an uncertain time.

“People keep saying it gives community members hope for us to have no date,” Watts said. “But I think back to the spring when we were shut down and every two weeks we listened to the state superintendent push us back two more weeks and how that dashed hope pretty quickly.”

Also during the meeting, Watts asked Martirano if small group instruction, which is currently suspended due to worsening coronavirus-related numbers in the county, could expansively expand to include pre-kindergarten through second grade students. He said yes, and also said that’s part of the reason why he wants to stop using the term “hybrid” and instead call the plans a “bridge to normalized instruction” to avoid being constrained by what people think when they hear the word “hybrid.”

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