In an often-tense discussion Wednesday night, the Frederick County Board of Education and a handful of school officials went over the district’s policies for curtailing COVID-19 in schools and supporting students in quarantine.
During a work session that was scheduled to last an hour but stretched on for two and a half, board members heard teacher and administrator concerns. The discussion came amid community frustration about quarantining and contact tracing.
“I had a parent tell me that this year for their student is a waste,” board member Jason Johnson said. “It broke my heart. And it doesn’t have to be. We can be creative.”
For the past two weeks, Superintendent Terry Alban said, the district has had more than 1,000 students in quarantine every week and has been notified of a new school outbreak every day.
The discussion centered around a list of questions that board members had submitted to FCPS central office staff. Those questions ran the gamut of pandemic preparedness issues, touching on topics ranging from social distancing at lunch to tutoring options for quarantined students.
For more than an hour, FCPS school administration and system accountability director Jamie Aliveto led a group of three principals and one teacher in listing challenges they’d faced in the three weeks since school began — focusing mainly on managing contact tracing and supporting families in quarantine.
Board members asked them questions in return, sometimes appearing frustrated with the lack of simple answers.
Walkersville High School Principal Stephanie Ware said that often a single positive case necessitates three or four hours of contact tracing work from three or four different people.
Principals are bearing a large portion of the burden, Ware and others said Wednesday, often feeling solely responsible for communicating the district’s protocols to other administrators, teachers, staff and families.
That’s been especially difficult when it comes to contact tracing, said Brian Vasquenza, principal of Windsor Knolls Middle School.
“It was clumsy, at first, to say the least,” he said.
And some principals have had to hand-deliver Chromebooks to quarantined students who needed them to access online instructional materials, Urbana Elementary School Principal Tracy Hilliard said.
“This is not your job,” board member Liz Barrett said in response. “I recognize that everybody says, ‘I’ll do whatever,’ but this is not the job of the principal.”
Missy Dirks, president of the union that represents FCPS teachers, said instructors didn’t have access to the COVID-19 handbook where principals receive information and regular updates about school virus protocols. Last year, she said, that document was available to all teachers.
Dirks said her members had been especially concerned about the district’s infrastructure to support students who may have to endure lengthy quarantines. Concurrent teaching — where instructors teach students who are in the classroom while simultaneously teaching via Google Meet — doesn’t work well for anyone, she said.
Crosby Blair, a fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, had 11 of his 22 students quarantined last week, he told the board.
“Access to devices is a challenge at my school,” he said. “It’s something that I see as a challenge for equity in general.”
And while some community members argued that FCPS should simply allow quarantined students to “listen in” to classes via Google Meet, Dirks and FCPS Curriculum and Instruction Director Kevin Cuppett said that would quickly shift into a concurrent teaching model.
Students would ask questions, Dirks and Cuppett said, and teachers would be unable to simply ignore them. The ensuing burden of managing the technology would take up a lot of their attention and wouldn’t be fair to the students present in classrooms, they said.
“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions,” Dirks said.
Board member Sue Johnson said she’d communicated with families who had a wonderful experience in FCPS’ summer programs, yet their children had only been in school for a total of four days since the academic year resumed on Aug. 18 due to quarantines.
“So that’s a crushing blow,” Johnson said. “It feels like we’re taking one step forward, and almost two steps backwards.”
As the discussion wound down, FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban posed a question that seemed to strike some board members as a curveball.
“I would like to get specific, clear direction for me and for our staff as to what would it take, and when would we look to have FCPS choose to move away from our current in-person instructional model,” she said.
Several board members then reiterated their support for keeping kids in school five days per week.
The issue was added as a discussion item on the agenda for the board’s next meeting, which will take place on Sept. 22.