There is still little clarity on when the Frederick County Board of Education will make a decision on reopening schools, despite a lengthy conversation board members had with the county’s state delegates.
During a recent joint meeting, the topic of reopening school dominated the discussion even though it was not on the meeting’s official agenda. Delegates and senators peppered board members with questions on the way they plan to move forward with reopening schools and how FCPS is operating now.
The board failed to vote on motions pertaining to reopening schools at its Oct. 7 meeting, but the topic has been added to the next meeting’s agenda for discussion. The meeting will take place Nov. 11. It is unclear if the board will enter a vote on the topic during their discussion.
Board president Brad Young said he would like to have a vote next week, but board member Lois Jarman suggested waiting until the winners of the recent Board of Education election take their seats in December.
There are three seats open on the board. Jarman and board member Rae Gallagher ran to retain their seats, and board member Michael Bunitsky is stepping down.
As of Friday, Sue Johnson, Jason Johnson and David Bass led the vote count. Provisional ballots are still being counted, and final results are not expected until the end of next week.
School superintendent Terry Alban told the delegation that at this point, the focus is on implementing a hybrid model for all grades for the second semester while continuing to expand the number of students coming in for small-group learning over the next few weeks.
However, she noted that with metrics across the country rising, and health guidance constantly being modified, things could change.
Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) told board members that she would like to see a prioritization of helping students who are struggling with mental health issues due to the pandemic.
“They are inordinately suffering from isolation, depression, anxiety and all those other things, and I truly believe that if they had a quicker path of transition back to a school setting, they would benefit immensely,” she said.
Alban said herself, staff and the board are equally concerned about mental health, which is why there has been a look at bringing back sports and other co-curricular activities but again pointed to restrictions in place such as only being allowed to have 15 people together at one time.
Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) said he understands the board has had tough decisions to make but that he is concerned about how the board is being perceived by the public.
“I think there is an underlying perception that some parents are not having a strong voice in some of these decisions ... this is a time when transparency, everything has to be on the table,” Pippy said. “There can be no perception of the teachers union getting involved or putting pressure on members behind the scenes ... just make sure everyone is involved and everyone sees everything that goes into making a decision.”
Bunitsky shot back at Pippy’s remarks and said since many teachers are older and could be high-risk for the virus, they have to be taken into account.
“Teachers unions have never controlled our votes. You hear that from folks, but that’s fake news,” he said. “There are parents that are loud and boisterous and very colorful in their language of what we should do and how we approach not going back to schools just yet ... and we also get parents that aren’t complaining, that are happy with what we’ve done.”
Del. Ken Kerr (D-Frederick) asked how a transition to a hybrid model would impact bus drivers and food service workers.
Young said he expects to be able to bring back all those employees who were furloughed or laid off while the school system was operating in a fully virtual mode.
Most members of the delegation seemed to be appreciative of the board’s work during such an unprecedented year and encouraged members to keep moving forward.
“You’ve asked the right questions, you’ve gone to the right sources. I believe that history will prove that you made the right decisions,” Lewis Young said.
LYNX, budget and SROs
Besides reopening schools, the delegation and the board touched on three other topics in the meeting.
Alban gave a brief update on the LYNX (Linking Youth to New Experiences) Program at Frederick High, which is currently in its fourth year of implementation and will see its first graduating class at the end of this school year. LYNX stands for “Linking students to new experiences” and allows students to attend field trips and other events in order to explore career paths.
Alban expressed appreciation that funding for the program has always been included in the governor’s budget.
Delegates also received an update on the state of the school system’s budgets from FCPS Chief Financial Officer Leslie Pellegrino.
“This is the most unpredictable budget we’ve ever seen at FCPS,” Pellegrino said, listing several financial concerns staff have.
One of the biggest concerns seemed to be the potential impact of current enrollment numbers on the school system’s funding.
According to Pellegrino, FCPS saw a decline in enrollment this year, most of which was due to the pandemic. She explained that if the state continues to provide funding based on enrollment data, FCPS could see long-term impacts.
The county is continuing to grow, she said, and there is an expectation that enrollment numbers for this year are an anomaly. She appealed to members of the delegation to keep that in mind when entering the legislative session for next year.
Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick) provided some words of comfort.
“Please know that your Board of Education priorities are our priorities ... we’re going to do our best to make sure education remains a priority for the general assembly,” she said.
There was also a brief discussion on the future of the school resource officer (SRO) program. Pippy said he was a big advocate of the program and would be disappointed to see its removal.
Young said there are no plans at the moment for the board to discuss any changes to the program, but board Vice President Jay Mason said the board has to consider the feelings of all students on any matter.
“I’m not saying that [SROs are] not good, but when some students look at SROs, they don’t have a positive reaction to them, so that is something we should talk about and make sure all of our students feel safe in our schools,” he said.