Frederick County Public Schools announced Wednesday that it has delayed the implementation of its hybrid learning model due to worsening COVID-19 health metrics in the county.
The hybrid model was supposed to begin on Jan. 28, but in an email sent to the school community, FCPS announced that the start of the model would be delayed until Feb. 16.
Teachers are now expected to return to school buildings on Jan. 27 versus the previously agreed upon date of Jan. 13.
"I feel confident about our hybrid model, and we are looking forward to welcoming students back into our school buildings. We just need the right health metrics in place to make this happen," Superintendent Terry Alban said in a statement.
The school system recently reverted to a full virtual model and suspended all in-person small group instruction and winter sports practices due to a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the county.
Alban told the News-Post in an email that FCPS staff and local health officials had been concerned over surges in cases and hospitalizations that were seen after the holidays.
The number of cases in the county has hit all-time highs in the past few weeks. As of Wednesday, Frederick County was reporting 12,309 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 119 cases added within the last 24 hours. The seven-day positivity rate was 11.4 percent.
Alban previously told the News-Post that a decrease in the metrics is the only way the school system would be able to step out of the full virtual mode it is currently in.
The delay of the hybrid model does not mean, however, that small-group instruction and winter sports practices will continue to be suspended. Since both activities involved smaller groups of people, they could be started again, depending on metrics, Alban said.
Frederick County Board of Education President Jay Mason said Alban spoke with all board members before deciding to delay the hybrid model. Mason said he agreed with the decision.
"Our stats, they are not good...when you look at the people that are in our buildings, those are the people that are impacted the most by [the virus], so bringing in more people together is just not a good idea at this time," he said.
Mason asked that families continue to "hang in there."
To help teachers transition into the hybrid model, there will be two asynchronous learning days for students — Feb. 3 and 10. Students will not meet directly with teachers those days and will complete school work independently at home.
In an email to the News-Post on Wednesday, Alban said these asynchronous days were included in the transition plan to make sure staff members are ready to welcome students back to buildings.
The new date for teachers to return back to buildings was not made in consultation with the Frederick County Teachers' Association (FCTA), Alban said, but she made sure to give teachers the agreed upon two weeks of prep time.
FCTA President Missy Dirks said in an email that the organization agrees with the decision.
"Educators want to be safely back in school with their students. Sadly, the community spread of COVID-19 in Frederick County has hit an alarming high," she said. "We are hopeful that a renewed effort by the community to follow health and safety guidelines to slow the spread, and the rollout of the vaccine, will help make a safe return to in-person instruction possible later in the school year."
For other staff members such as food service workers and bus drivers, their employment will continue, Alban said. Those who were let go during the fall's "Reduction in Force" resumed employment with FCPS on Jan. 1.
"Most of those workers were already back, and those returning are now available to cover any vacancies that occur due to illness or quarantining," Alban said.
Food service workers continue to prepare and deliver meals to students in need seven days a week and bus drivers have safety inspections and trainings that must be completed. The extra time will be utilized, Alban said.
According to the FCPS email sent out, the hybrid model could be further delayed if health metrics do not improve by the end of January. If metrics remain the same or continue to rise, the implementation of the hybrid model will be pushed back to March 1, with teachers then returning to buildings on Feb. 10.
Alban said she could not promise a date for when an announcement about a further delay would be made.
"I am trying to give teachers and parents enough notice to adjust plans if necessary...to make future decisions, I am watching the metrics and consulting with [County Health Officer] Dr. Barbara Brookmyer to see a positive trend in the data or to perhaps have a better sense of when vaccines may be available," she said.
In a hybrid model, students who wish to attend school in-person will be split into two cohorts and will have class in-person two days a week. According to the email, all schools will operate at approximately 30 percent of normal capacity.
Feb. 16 was chosen as the new start date of the hybrid model to make sure that both cohorts of students would have an equal amount of time in-person for the remainder of the school year, according to Alban.
FCPS also plans to launch a dashboard next week that will report the total number of COVID-19 cases across the school system and will provide a breakdown of the data by individual school. The data will be updated on a weekly basis.
Feedback from staff and parents indicating interest in such a dashboard prompted its creation, Alban said.
"Initially, [Maryland Department of Health] and our local health department advised against a dashboard because the number of students and staff in our buildings was so small that we did not want to risk revealing confidential health information," Alban said. "Staff and parents indicated an interest in knowing if there were positive cases in our schools. Since we will be bringing more students and staff into the buildings, we wanted them to be able to see [the] data and our local health officials agreed."