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Survey: Nearly 85% of Howard County educators will return to classrooms in March and April for hybrid learning

Nearly 85% of Howard County educators will return for in-person learning when the public school system’s hybrid model begins to roll out in March, according to a survey conducted by the district.

The school system surveyed its educators and administrators to determine whether they will return to classrooms, and 84.8% indicated they would return for hybrid learning. Only 3.3% chose to stop working — either by taking leave, resigning or retiring — while almost 12% requested accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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The district conducted the survey between Jan. 27 and Feb. 5, and 93% of staff responded. In total, 7,471 out of approximately 8,000 staff members answered the survey, and 244 of them chose to stop working. Twenty-eight will resign, while 31 will retire and 185 will request an unpaid leave of absence.

Meanwhile, 7,227 chose to continue working, however 889 of them will submit ADA requests — mostly asking to work virtually before being fully vaccinated — while 6,338 will return in person when asked.

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Approximately 500 educators didn’t respond to the survey. System spokesperson Brian Bassett said school administrators will continue to reach out to those staff members, but the district will assume in the meantime that they are coming back for in-person learning. Depending on what those 500 educators choose, the range of staff returning for in-person learning could be between 79% and 86%.

The survey coincided with a commitment form that was sent out to parents, which revealed that about half of Howard County students will return for in-person hybrid learning.

Much of the discussion regarding the staff survey during the Board of Education’s meeting Thursday was about the ADA requests. David Larner, the school system’s chief human resources officer, said the nearly 900 requests is far more than the 20 ADA accommodation requests the district receives in a normal year.

He said the “vast majority” of requests are from educators asking to work virtually due to the virus. For staff members who are granted their requests, Larner said a classroom monitor or a paraeducator will be in the room while the educator teaches virtually.

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While less than 12% of educators requested an ADA accommodation to teach virtually, the model of having a classroom monitor is similar to the system Carroll County Public Schools has employed, which Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said he didn’t support last month — before his district was spurred by Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he would explore consequences for systems that didn’t get students back in classrooms by March 1.

“I do not support that at all because that defeats the whole purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish and creates additional challenges,” Martirano said in mid-January.

Larner said educators at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 symptoms, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, will be granted their requests. However, after those educators are fully inoculated — two weeks after the second dose of the vaccine, which is administered about three to four weeks after the first dose — they will be told to return to classrooms.

“We are hopeful that by the time we get to everybody being back, the number of people being out on ADA accommodation will be lower than it is now,” Larner said.

Educators who have to quarantine due to contact tracing by the school system will receive paid leave and can work virtually, Larner said. But if an educator needs to quarantine due to contact tracing outside of the school system, they will not be paid for their temporary leave of absence.

“There’s no way for us to track to see whether you actually had to quarantine or not,” Larner said. “If I’m someone who didn’t want to come back to the building, I could claim that I need to quarantine every day and stay home. … Would most people choose to do that? Of course not. But we have staff members who are concerned about being back, and we need to have rules that are fair but also encourage people who can be back to be back.”

“I hope you reconsider that strategy and have a more flexible model,” board member Jolene Mosley said in response. “I think there are ways to follow up if your household needs to be quarantined, like showing you have positive tests. I don’t think it adds to risky behavior.”

To open the meeting, Martirano said about 2,700 members — or 30% — of the district’s staff has received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Another 1,500 staff have a scheduled appointment to receive their first dose. It is unlikely that all school-based staff will be fully vaccinated before returning to school buildings, which Martirano and the head of the CDC have said should not be a “prerequisite” for starting hybrid learning.

Colleen Morris, the president of the county’s teachers union, rebuked the board and the school system during the meeting Thursday, saying they do not “respect” the lives of their staff.

“Staff were told the school system would prioritize vaccines for staff who were scheduled to return to the buildings first,” Morris said. “But now, educators are competing for vaccines, in what many have accurately called ‘The Hunger Games,’ to find one anywhere they can before being ordered back into the buildings.”

About 75% of staff will return later this month to staff the five-day-a-week plan for the district’s students who most need in-person learning, such as students with individualized educational plans and those who were invited to the in-person small group programs in the fall. That group of approximately 4,000 students will return for in-person learning March 1.

The rest of the staff will return one week before their students come back for in-person hybrid learning, which begins March 15 with pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first- and second-grade students. On March 29, students in grades 3 through 6, 9 and 12 will return, while students in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11 will come back April 12.

As approved by the school board last month, the hybrid students will be placed on an A-day/B-day schedule, with one group learning in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will remain for self-guided instruction and homework. The virtual option will be similar to what students have received for the last six months except on a different schedule that will also accommodate the hybrid in-person students. Educators will teach both groups concurrently.

All students will see an increase in instructional time from about 12-13 hours a week to 20-25 hours.

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