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Online, in-person or hybrid model: Howard school system contemplates what fall reopening could look like

The clock is ticking for school districts across the country to decide what school will look like in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Howard County is no exception.

In Maryland, school systems have until Aug. 14 to submit their plans to the Maryland State Department of Education. The Howard County Public School System, which has been considering several options this summer, is planning to send its plans to the state soon after presenting them to the Howard County Board of Education on Thursday.

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The plans include three options for the 2020-21 school year, specifically the fall semester.

The first option, which Superintendent Michael Martirano said is the least likely, is all students returning to the classroom as normal. The second is an all-online model that would include more instruction and video time with teachers, while the third plan is a hybrid model with some in-person classes and some online learning.

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The school system has also compiled data from thousands of surveys from students, staff and parents to factor into its decision making.

“We’re looking at three guiding principles for all the decisions we’re making — safety, operations and instruction — as well as the 13 non-negotiable [requirements] from [the state],” Martirano said in an interview with the Howard County Times in late June. “We are building our plans around those.”

Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education, as laid out by the Maryland State Department of Education, has 13 requirements for school districts in planning their reopening, including college and career readiness requirements, Individualized Education Program protocols, attendance tracking and safety protocols.

Here are the three plans the Howard County school system is considering:

Online model

The online model the school system is considering will be different than the distance learning Howard County students underwent in the spring. When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools in Maryland to close March 13, Martriano said the Howard school system was not ready for distance learning.

“What we need to recognize is the model we implemented in the spring was quickly thrust upon us,” Martirano said. “We didn’t have any forewarning of that. We were woefully underprepared as far as the infrastructure with our Chromebooks, hot spots and training with our staff to teach in a virtual environment.”

The school system waited until late April to begin distance learning, which included less instructional time between teachers and students.

In the past four months, however, Martirano said the school system has learned “an incredible amount” about distance learning, and he believes a fully online system, if implemented, would be much more “robust.”

“First, our teachers have become much more comfortable in the [past few months]. We’ve been providing additional training for them. Second, we have learned how to make sure everyone has the devices they need with the purchase of 20,000 Chromebooks back in March,” Martirano said.

“In looking at different models, we are looking to have more synchronous time between teacher and students,” said Scott Ruehl, director of leadership development for the school system.

Hybrid model

The hybrid model, which is a combination of in-person instruction and online learning, is one that many school systems across the country are implementing, including Fairfax County in Virginia and New York City public schools.

Martirano said the school system is considering a wide range of plans, which could be presented at Wednesday’s school board meeting, including an A-day/B-day schedule at the elementary level or a semester-based model at the secondary level with four classes in each semester.

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There could also be a system, Martirano said, in which students could opt-in to distance learning if schools return due to health conditions or other concerns.

Any hybrid model the school system chooses does not have the be across all levels, meaning elementary school students could follow one model while secondary students follow another.

“Does every level have to look the same? No, it doesn’t,” said Karalee Turner-Little, school system deputy superintendent. “Elementary could be in one option, middle school and high school could be in a different option. Then there could be a fourth option that’s open to everyone. Our ‘one plan’ could have different iterations for each level.”

Another aspect the school system is considering is its overarching goal of equity for its students, which can become more challenging in an online or semi-online format.

“We’re looking at models that, through the lens of equity, will provide opportunities to provide additional support to those students who need additional time — our special education students, [Gifted and Talented] students, ESOL students,” Ruehl said.

In-person model

A fully face-to-face model for the fall, Maritrano said, is the least likely to occur.

“We have to keep that on the table, but we recognize that probably won’t happen,” he said.

There are several challenges for a “normal” school setting in the fall, including transportation, social distancing guidelines, personal protective equipment, sanitation, and even things like cafeterias and water fountains.

On the other end, Maritrano recognizes the challenges for families, especially those with elementary-age children or special education students, to navigate a completely online setting.

The improbability of a completely in-person model is only for the fall, though. Martirano said whatever commitment the school system chooses for the fall does not need to be the model it follows in the winter or spring.

For example, if coronavirus numbers improve drastically or a vaccine arrives in the fall or winter, the school system could pivot to a more in-person model. If coronavirus numbers worsen, on the other hand, it could push the school system to shift to a more virtual setting than it originally planned.

In short, all options are on the table during the school year, Martirano said.

“We need to prepare for every scenario,” he said. “Without any timeline, our final goal is to get to that level to be back to normal. That could be the middle of this year, that could be next summer or it could be next year. But I’m not going to say no to anything.”

The school system is likely to submit its plans to the Maryland State Board of Education much sooner than the Aug. 14 deadline, since Howard County’s first instructional day is Aug. 25 — two weeks earlier than last year after the board approved moving up the start of school last fall.

“We are one of the first school systems in Maryland to open up, so we need to make sure we have time to plan,” Martirano said.

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