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Howard County school board rejects hybrid model, votes to stay with virtual learning through mid-April

In a work session to discuss the school system’s proposed hybrid reopening plan Monday, the Howard County Board of Education rejected the partially in-person model and voted instead to keep students in virtual learning through at least mid-April.

The board was expected to vote on whether to approve the hybrid reopening plan for the second semester — as long as the coronavirus metrics in the county allow it — at its meeting Thursday. Instead, the motion to remain in a virtual learning model through the end of the third quarter was approved, 5-2, with members Christina Delmont-Small and Chao Wu as the two dissenting votes; Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo was not present for the vote due to technical difficulties.

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“We set up metrics, whether it’s February or March or April,” Wu said. “If the metrics are not met, we aren’t going to a hybrid model. What we are talking about now is the conceptual model. If we’re afraid to do anything because we don’t know what could happen, we are failing ourselves.”

The vote will keep the majority of the district’s approximately 57,000 students learning online until April 14 — almost exactly a full year since the school system launched its abbreviated virtual learning model in the early weeks of the pandemic during this past spring.

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“I feel like we cannot ask people to be in limbo for this,” member Sabina Taj said ahead of a motion to push the vote on the hybrid model to December. “The next meeting, we were supposed to make a decision, which I think we’re ready to make now. I don’t think we can kick this can down the road. We should make the decision and give educators peace of mind.”

While the vote will extend virtual learning, it does also task the school system to continue to improve and expand upon the small group, in-person support programs it is currently providing to students who most need them.

However, before the start of Monday’s work session, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said those in-person programs at 26 schools across the county will be temporarily suspended beginning Thursday due to the county’s increasing coronavirus numbers. School system officials will reevaluate the county’s health metrics on Nov. 30 to decide whether to resume the in-person programs on Dec. 3.

Following a few hours of discussion regarding the proposed reopening plan, the unexpected result happened in a series of four motions by the board.

The first vote was in response to Martirano’s request for more time to improve the district’s hybrid plan, which drew dozens of questions and several critiques from board members during the work session. A criticism from multiple board members of the A-group/B-group hybrid plan was that the district’s educators would be expected to teach both their in-person and virtual students at the same time.

Under the proposed hybrid plan, students would have been 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 would have remained self-guided days for students and planning for teachers. In the plan, students would not have been forced to return to classrooms if their parents didn’t want them to be in school buildings, so teachers would be teaching both in person and virtually.

“I must admit, speaking to educators here in Howard County about how they feel about doing both in person and virtual at the same time, I don’t know how that’s possibly going to work out,” board Chairperson Mavis Ellis said Monday.

“People say, ‘Oh, it’ll be difficult for teachers to instruct online and in person,’ ” said Colleen Morris, president of the county teachers union. “It’s not difficult. It’s impossible.”

Martirano requested more time to allow the school system to refine its plan and to see what the health metrics look like in a few weeks. He said the county will be in a “different place” in December and that the board would be better equipped to make the vote then.

“People are using some very ominous words to describe what may happen when there’s that cross-pollination of families gathering for the holidays,” Martirano said before the vote. “The data may look completely different after the holidays. It would be my recommendation — and this isn’t me kicking the can down the road, it is just operating under pure science — that the board directs me to consider all these variables and bring this back for consideration of the actual implementation in December."

The motion to give the school system more time to develop a hybrid plan failed, 4-4. Ellis, Taj, member Jen Mallo and student member Zach Koung rejected the motion, while Kirsten Coombs, Cutroneo, Wu and Delmont-Small voted to approve it.

“We need to do what we can, when the metrics allow, to get our students back to some form of in-person learning,” Delmont-Small said. “I believe it’s our responsibility to come up with the best hybrid model we can come up with, and I do not think this model is that. ... I believe there is a workable hybrid [plan].”

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Then, Cutroneo motioned to direct Martirano to consider and develop other hybrid models. The result was the same, failing 4-4, with the same members voting on both sides.

“What I’m hearing the majority of the board say [is] the current hybrid model is not something that we can currently support as a board,” Mallo said. “Then on top of that, I feel in many ways that this is the proverbial kicking the can down the road.”

“I don’t want to shut the door,” Cutroneo said. “I think it’s premature. I’m not willing to close the door. As much as I don’t want to kick the can down the road, sometimes you need to to make the best possible decision.”

Those two votes then left the board with only one hybrid plan to consider, and the next motion to reject the school system’s hybrid model passed, 7-1. Delmont-Small was the lone dissenter.

The last motion was to remain virtual through mid-April and expand in-person support programs.

In addition to the work session following a nontraditional route, there was the fact that three of the members voting will no longer be on the board in a few weeks. Ellis, Taj and Coombs will be leaving the board when the new members, who won their general election races this month, are sworn in Dec. 7. Ellis and Taj didn’t run for reelection, while Coombs lost her primary bid in District 4.

The decisions by the school system and the board Monday came several hours after Howard County Executive Calvin Ball tightened gathering restrictions due to the county’s worsening coronavirus numbers. Starting 5 p.m. Tuesday, indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited.

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Howard County saw 472 coronavirus cases last week, and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate was a record 19.5 per 100,000 as of Saturday, according to the Howard County Health Department. Two of the last seven days have seen daily positivity rates of over 5%, and the weekly positivity rate was 4.99% on Saturday.

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“When a community reaches 5% positivity and a case rate of over 20 per 100,000, that is a concern,” Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman said during the meeting. “That’s a danger point.”

Last month, the school board voted on health parameters the school system would follow when making reopening decisions in the future. That vote was separate from consideration regarding the specific hybrid reopening plan presented by the school system this month. To move into a hybrid model for the second semester (beginning Feb. 1), the board determined that the seven-day positivity rate in Howard County should be less than 5% and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate should be less than 10 per 100,000.

High school sports in Howard County — as well as other in-person extracurricular activities — are also dependent upon those metrics. High school sports in Howard County recently hit a small speed bump due to voluntary conditioning in the county, which was supposed to begin Monday, being canceled “due to a recent rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases,” according to the county.

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