Students in Frederick County Public Schools will most likely get a full break, without much online instruction, over the next two weeks as the school system shuts down over concerns about COVID-19.
All Maryland public schools will be closed starting Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 27 to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
Ideally, the school system would have been able to begin delivering online instruction on March 16, but FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban said this is not possible because many teachers are not trained in online instruction and the various tools they would need to use.
FCPS had been planning to hold a training session for those teachers next week, but then the state’s decision threw that plan into disarray.
Teachers can still be trained while schools are closed, but first FCPS and the Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA) must agree on how that will be done since teachers are technically off during this time.
Alban said that because so many details still have to be worked out, it is unlikely that students will be given daily online instruction directly from teachers over the next two weeks. If schools remain closed beyond two weeks, direct virtual instruction will most likely start then.
“Right now, we’re looking at the next two weeks as just a typical closure due to a snow type of incident,” Alban said. “Teachers will suggest to them here’s [something] you can work on, but it won’t be a lot of teacher-directed activities that you’re going to have to do every day.”
Alban added that schools are also encouraging students to take home textbooks and check out books and other materials from school media centers.
FCPS is also working to make sure every student has access to a computer or internet at home in order to complete assignments if the closure is extended.
Every single FCPS student at the middle and high school level has a Chromebook, but that is not the case at the elementary level.
Alban said there are extra Chromebooks that may be provided to elementary students who do not have computers at home.
“Part of what our principals have been doing for the last couple days is finding out who’s going to be able to access the internet [and] who can’t. We’re trying to get some devices that we can give to families,” Alban said. “We feel that’s an important equity piece, and so it’s going to take us a little bit of time over the next two weeks to implement all of that.”
For those lacking internet access, alternative methods will have to be used such as sending materials to the student’s home or having a parent or family member pick them up from the school, according to the FCPS Coronavirus Action Plan.
The other big concern Alban said she has about continuing instruction is with high school students who are trying to complete graduation requirements and prepare for end-of-year exams.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that our high school kids stay on track,” Alban said. “One of the reasons I want to see our high schools get online as quickly as possible [is that] if this extends beyond these two weeks, our kids with those AP classes are going to need to keep moving.”
At this point there has been no indication from the College Board, which administers AP exams, that the tests would be rescheduled.
With state testing, Alban said the Maryland State Department of Education [MSDE] may move the testing window, but that is yet to be determined.
Despite all these challenges, Alban said she feels confident that FCPS is one of the more prepared school systems in the state.
“It’s not like all of a sudden in the last three weeks we said, ‘Oh, [we’ve] to start developing things.’ We have things developed; we have a great tool for using it. We just have not been able to train all 3,000 teachers,” Alban said. “I still think Frederick County is leading the state in being ready to actually deliver true course material in an online vehicle.”
Many questions remain to be answered regarding how the two-week closure will affect the remainder of the academic calendar and big events such as high school graduation.
Alban said she will meet with the Board of Education to discuss whether or not graduation dates need to be moved and how they will make up these 10 days at the end of the year if that’s what the state asks for.
Alban said at this point, it is unclear whether MSDE will allow schools to have a shorter academic year and waive those 10 days or not.
The school system is also trying to figure out how to provide materials and instruction to students who need accommodations, such as special education and English Learner (EL) students.
According to a draft of the FCPS Coronavirus Action Plan obtained by The News-Post, special education teachers and EL teachers will work with their caseload of students to provide instructional support.
There will be a little more individualization with special education students, though, and Alban said FCPS is exploring tools such as video conferencing to continue providing resources such as speech therapy to students who need it.
For the next two weeks, school buildings will be closed to the public, but administrators, custodians, and any 12-month FCPS employees will be on-site and working, including central office employees. Teleworking is an option when possible, and employees are encouraged to practice social distancing.
If a student or staff member is found to have contracted COVID-19 over the next two weeks while schools are closed, Alban said they would most likely be alerted to that by the Frederick County Health Department.
“As [the health department] are able to share more specific information with us they will do that, and then we will be able to in turn share that with the school community,” Alban said.
All school buildings and buses will also undergo thorough cleaning over the next two weeks to prevent the spread of germs or the virus.
As of Friday, the Board of Education is still planning on meeting on March 25, but the Board Room will be closed to the public.
According to Alban, the meeting will be livestreamed as usual and community members will be asked to send in public comment electronically.
Alban said FCPS will continue to update the community regularly and hopes that students will continue to practice good hygiene even though they are off school.
“It’s not going to be helpful if the students go home and then they all hang out in the mall together or things like that. Practicing social distancing, continuing to do all those preventative things are still very important even though they’re at home,” Alban said.
And more than anything she wants students to stay focused on returning to school.
“We want [students] to stay safe, we want them to keep exercising their brains and exercising their bodies and getting a good night’s sleep, because we want them healthy when they come back and we can’t wait to bring them back,” she said.