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Howard schools to stay course with virtual learning through January; board to consider hybrid plans next month

While some Maryland school systems have announced the start of hybrid models this fall, Howard County is sticking with its original plan to have virtual learning through at least the end of January.

In recent weeks, Carroll and Harford counties have announced hybrid learning plans that will begin this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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During Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, though, Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano reiterated to the board the district’s original plan that the board approved in July. The board won’t vote on a potential return to school buildings on Feb. 1 until November.

“We are in virtual [learning] through February, but we can’t wait until then to [start planning],” Martirano said. “... The three decisions that the board will have will either be to continue in virtual, hybrid or fully face-to-face.”

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At the board’s next meeting on Oct. 22, Martirano will discuss metrics pertaining to returning to school buildings with the board. At the Nov. 5 meeting, school system officials will present a hybrid model, and the board is expected to vote on what path the district will take for the second semester.

Board member Christina Delmont-Small requested the school system move quickly with the plans so the community has a chance to have input on the model.

“I think we should follow the ‘more is better than less and sooner is better than later’ philosophy on this,” Delmont-Small said.

Meanwhile, the school system is providing some in-person support for small groups of the students who most need it in multiple different programs.

The programs can either be half-day or full-day, depending on the needs of the students. Some of the programs, like in-person support for students in the Teenage Parenting and Childcare Program — which provides resources and services for students who are teen parents to help them graduate — began in September, while school-based special education programs are expected to be implemented in November.

The program — called school-based learning centers — for students with barriers to attendance and those especially struggling with virtual learning was originally scheduled to begin in late September. However, Martirano said Thursday the first of the centers will open Monday, with the other 19 “phasing in over the following weeks.”

Martirano said even if the school system goes with a hybrid model for the second semester, it will have a contingency plan for schools that have any coronavirus cases or outbreaks.

“We have to look at whether we’ll go fully virtual, hybrid or normalized, and if we do go hybrid, we’d have to create opportunities to be able to shift back to virtual,” he said.

He also expressed concerns over staffing, which school districts across the country are also dealing with.

“We need teachers to run our programs,” Martirano said. “That’s not profound, we just know that. So if our teachers are not feeling comfortable and they are using leave or not being able to return, it creates challenges for us. Look at our neighbors — and I don’t want to call anyone out by name — that have over 300 teachers who do not want to participate in their programs because of their concern.”

In Carroll County, 336 staff members, including 282 teachers, have informed the school system they will be requesting leave ahead of the launching of the district’s hybrid model.

For the second straight meeting, Colleen Morris, Howard County Education Association president, spoke to the board about the mental health of the school system’s educators. She said many teachers, especially special educators, have told her about their workload.

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“As we wrap up the month of September, I find myself at a loss with the enormous workload special education teachers are dealing with,” Morris read from an email she received from a special educator in the school system. “The current workload is completely unsustainable and is beyond our contracted days. Special education teachers are absolutely feeling like they can’t stay above water.”

Also during the meeting:

  • Martirano announced high school sports in Howard County will not start any sooner than December. The school will “not be participating in the state’s new plan, which began Oct. 7,” Martirano said. Instead, Martirano said the school system will be pushing for an alternate plan submitted by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association that would have in-person athletics begin statewide on Dec. 7.
  • The board unanimously approved a motion raised by Vice Chair Vicky Cutroneo to require the school system to provide an annual report on the diversity of curricular offerings.
  • Martirano also announced that additional funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will lead to an expansion of the school system’s Grab-and-Go meal program. Meals will be provided to any Howard County student for the rest of the year, and meals are being extended to weekends and snacks. For more information about the program, click here.
  • The board approved modified changes to its public forum procedures. Beginning Oct. 22, community members will be able to read their own comments during the virtual meeting instead of having Board of Education Administrator Kathy Hanks read them. The process for requesting to speak during public forum will remain the same.
  • Martirano also provided an update on laptop distribution in the school system. All elementary school students have been given a Chromebook laptop, while almost 50% of middle school students and nearly one-third of high school students have been provided one.
  • Martirano said about 99% of students attended some form of virtual school from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2. On Oct. 6, 97% of students were marked as present for attendance.

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