Even though the state of Maryland has entered Stage 3 of the governor's reopening plan, it seems unlikely that Frederick County Public Schools will return to normal operations anytime soon.
The school system is considering, however, a progression into a hybrid model, which was discussed during Wednesday's Board of Education meeting.
A hybrid model means students would split their week between virtual learning at home and attending class in-person. Students would most likely be split into groups and be assigned days on which they would attend class in-person.
But the school system is unable to jump right into a hybrid model for all grades due to logistics, needed planning, and guidance from the health department. So board members were presented with a four-step plan through which students would begin operating under a hybrid model in phases.
FCPS is currently in Step 1 of the plan which is an all-virtual model. A phase into Step 2 would see students in Pre-K, Kindergarten, first, second, sixth, and ninth grade brought in for hybrid learning as well as an expansion of more small-group learning.
According to Michael Markoe, deputy superintendent of FCPS, a progression into Step 2 would require at least four weeks of planning.
Questions abound though and board members seemed hesitant at Wednesday's meeting to make any quick decisions about bringing more students back into school buildings. Their number one concern—health and safety of students and employees.
Board member Liz Barrett said they cannot move forward without a concrete plan in place that addresses every aspect from social distancing in hallways to subbing plans if a teacher falls ill with the virus.
"Having those things clear for not only our Board but for every parent and student in Frederick County, having a playbook for every kid to know what to expect and certainly having a playbook for every teacher and staff member is going to be essential," Barrett said. "It's not just logistics and maybe a bus is late. This is actually life and death."
One of the biggest obstacles at this point preventing a move into Step 2 is that health rooms in schools are not adequately staffed. Markoe said the health department is "struggling" to fill vacancies.
"If we are unable to fill those vacancies staff certainly doesn't believe it's prudent to send our students back if we don't have health staff in our health rooms," he said.
Additionally, at this point, Markoe said FCPS has maxed out its resources in terms of staffing to deliver in-person instruction. The question of whether more teachers will volunteer to teach in buildings over the coming weeks will be a critical point in terms of progressing through the steps, and Barrett said more teachers may be willing if more questions about logistics and safety are answered.
Board member Michael Bunitsky also asked how teachers would be expected to teach the different cohorts of virtual and in-person students in a hybrid model.
Markoe answered that a possible scenario could be that a teacher delivers five hours of instruction in-person for the first portion of the day and then switches to approximately three hours of synchronous virtual instruction, as there is a mandate by the Maryland State Department of Education that students engaged in virtual learning must receive on average three-and-half hours of synchronous instruction each day.
Bunitsky seemed concerned by this idea and mentioned the amount of planning time it will take for teachers to develop instruction and assignments for these two different cohorts will be considerable.
There were also questions about enforcement in terms of social distancing and mask-wearing. Board member Lois Jarman said she has been hearing from teachers that mask-wearing is not being properly enforced in schools by principals.
"I don't care what your beliefs are about the virus, if you are in a leadership position in this school system you need to be following those guidelines," Jarman said. "One of those guidelines said consistent use of masks. It is not consistent now so why don't we rehearse that consistency now before we move into bringing more students in the building."
School Superintendent Terry Alban added on by saying that families need to be made aware that if they don't want their children wearing masks they can always opt for a full virtual option.
In terms of cleaning and disinfecting, Paul Lebo, chief operating officer for FCPS, told the board that the school system's custodians have enough supplies to thoroughly disinfect and sanitize schools through all three steps of the hybrid model phase-in.
The board directed FCPS staff to return in October with answers to their numerous questions and more guidance on COVID metrics and how they should be following them.
The next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 7. If the board decides then to move into that means specific groups of students could begin to return to buildings right after the start of the second quarter in November. But as Alban continued to point out, things change, and by the time Oct. 7 rolls around there could be new guidance and new mandates which could force some new decisions.
FCPS, along with all other school systems in the state, is required to present a finalized reopening plan by the end of the first academic quarter which lands on Nov. 6.
Alban also announced during the meeting that since the summer, FCPS had "traced over 15 scenarios related to COVID symptoms." This was based on people who participated in summer programming, sports conditioning, or small-group learning and was suspected of having the virus.
Not all of the "scenarios" led to a positive case Alban said. It is unclear at this point how many individuals tested positive.