As coronavirus cases in Frederick County Public Schools remained at near-record levels this week, the district shared new data reporting protocols and clarified what numbers it is looking at when considering temporary shifts to virtual instruction.

As of Thursday afternoon, one elementary classroom had temporarily moved to a virtual format “due to a combination of case rates, an outbreak and operational concerns,” interim superintendent Mike Markoe told the school board at its Wednesday meeting. One athletic team was also on pause, he said.

In a community-wide email last week, the district wrote that a weekly average attendance rate of less than 89 percent or a staff positivity rate of more than 5 percent at any school would trigger a central review committee to consider temporary virtual instruction. Those decisions could be made for an entire school, a grade level or a single class, FCPS said.

But according to FCPS’ new health dashboard, which shows attendance and case rates, only three of the county’s 68 schools had an attendance rate above 89 percent as of Tuesday. The systemwide average was 82.5 percent.

In an email, FCPS spokesperson Brandon Oland wrote the system was “no longer using a set percentage of attendance as a trigger for review.”

“It remains a metric that is being evaluated,” Oland wrote, “but we’ve found that absences have been for a variety of reasons, and all aren’t COVID-related.”

Staff case rates exceeded 5 percent at four elementary schools on the most recent iteration of the dashboard: Wolfsville, with a rate of 8.3 percent; Valley, with a rate of 7.6 percent; Waverley, with a rate of 6.1 percent; and Sabillasville, with a rate of 5.9 percent.

The district reported 730 new cases between Sunday and Tuesday of this week. Last week, it reported 1,792, nearly five times the previous record high of 365 weekly cases.

Last month, the Frederick County Board of Education agreed to add a standing item to its agenda each meeting for coronavirus-related discussion. On Wednesday, that discussion was somewhat scattered, with staff and board members considering screening testing, bus driver shortages, the risks of unmasked lunchtime, quarantine policies and more.

Markoe acknowledged the confusion many community members were feeling.

“Every time we attempt to be proactive, somehow we end up being reactive,” Markoe said. “We do very much appreciate the patience of the community and our employees. And we recognize at times, when we’re being so fluid, it’s frustrating. And I do apologize for that.”

Board president Brad Young and most of his colleagues have repeatedly expressed their commitment to keeping schools fully in-person. Board member Jason Johnson didn’t receive any support for a motion he made Wednesday to move the district into hybrid learning until county case rates stayed below 10 percent for two consecutive weeks.

“The community’s been asking for this,” Johnson said. “We should at least discuss it.”

No one seconded his motion, and the board moved on without considering the idea further. Johnson protested, saying the district wasn’t doing enough to support education for the large number of students in isolation or quarantine, or those whose parents were keeping them home due to concerns about the omicron variant’s rapid spread.

FCPS is coding all such absences as legitimate, Markoe said, and students can access home tutoring support when they’re not in school.

Board member Liz Barrett advocated for encouraging — but not requiring — teachers to turn on a video feed while they’re in school, allowing students at home to tune into class. Teachers in the past have expressed opposition to that idea, saying it would quickly devolve into concurrent teaching, which educators often feel is unfairly taxing and not beneficial to either group of students.

And besides the academic and social-emotional impact of school closures, Dana Falls, FCPS’ director of student services, said some health experts posited shutdowns would lead to increased viral spread. Unlike in the beginning of the pandemic, many families aren’t staying home or even wearing masks these days — but in school, kids are supervised all day to ensure their masks are on.

“Can it spread in school? Yes,” Burns said. “But I do believe the positivity rates speak for themselves. And we see those spikes when kids are not in school.”

Board members briefly discussed the possibility of contracting with a private vendor and establishing test sites in each feeder system for employees or students who thought they had been exposed to the virus. They didn’t make any decisions.

Toward the end of the discussion, Markoe said he thought hiring a designated COVID-19 response manager would be an “immediate help” to the district. He said he hoped to have someone in the role within a week.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

(5) comments

Boomer631B

As another article reported by the health department of the county and even within the state, cases are going down finally and so are hospitalizations for the county and the state. We must continue to keep kids in school to avoid other serious issues with kids both mentally and socially; we will come thru this especially with this latest variant.

BoomBoom

Do your grandchildren that have all had Covid attend public school?

Boomer631B

Why do you ask such a private question like that in an open forum?

Boomer631B

Why not give me your cell number and I call you with the information only if I thought it was necessary...

md1980

Here we go, yet another Central Office employee while teachers face class sizes of 30+. "oward the end of the discussion, Markoe said he thought hiring a designated COVID-19 response manager would be an “immediate help” to the district. He said he hoped to have someone in the role within a week."

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