Frederick County Public Schools will continue to operate under its current hybrid learning model after the Frederick County Board of Education couldn't agree on whether to increase the number of students in schools or expand the hybrid model to four days a week.
The inaction at Wednesday's board meeting comes after new guidance was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That guidance on school reopening states that in elementary schools the distance between students can be safely decreased from six feet to three feet and that the distance in middle and high schools can be decreased if student cohorts and classes do not mix or interact.
Students should still wear masks at all times, and if masks are removed, such as when eating, the six-feet rule must be implemented.
The updated guidelines were officially adopted by the state of Maryland on Thursday.
“This updated guidance and the continued low rate of cases in schools should empower all Maryland schools to bring more students back into the classroom and/or give students the opportunity to receive in-person instruction more frequently before the end of the school year," state Superintendent Karen Salmon said in a statement.
The new information was given to Frederick board members during a reopening discussion Wednesday. Board members have asked that they receive updates on the reopening issue at each meetings during the pandemic.
Some FCPS families who are currently all-virtual have expressed interest in sending their kids back to school buildings for the fourth academic quarter, which begins on April 13. At some schools that is possible, FCPS staff told board members, based on school size and the number of students who want to return for in-person learning. Principals are currently working to accommodate what is possible.
But an increase in the number of days students come into buildings or an increase in the number of students attending hybrid countywide based on the new guidance is easier said than done.
Logistics with cafeteria and classroom space and transportation are some of the biggest challenges, said FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban. Because students have to maintain six feet of distance while eating, it would be difficult to fit more students into cafeterias for lunch periods. Many are already at max capacity.
Other spaces such as media centers and classrooms can be utilized, but then there are staff coverage issues as contractually teachers are required to be given duty-free lunchtime, said Jamie Aliveto, executive director of system accountability and school administration for FCPS.
Outdoor lunches are an option, but that's only weather permitting.
"Schools worked very hard to accommodate staff who had ADA—American Disabilities Act—requests, and as a result of that, we have fewer teachers available in the building," said Kristen Canning, elementary director of student achievement and instructional leadership for FCPS.
Additionally, if there was a significant increase in the number of students coming back to buildings or an increase in the number of days for hybrid, distanced seating couldn't be maintained on school busses said Paul Lebo, FCPS chief operating officer.
"I'm not saying this to make excuses, what I want the board ... to understand it's not as simple as we're going from six to three and everything doubles," Alban said.
Board members discussed whether families should be surveyed so FCPS can gauge how many students would be interested in attending school in-person under a three-foot distancing rule or how many students who are currently virtual would be interested in changing to hybrid. But more roadblocks in taking that direction were brought up, the most significant of which was the potential timeline.
With a week-long spring break for the school system starting on March 29, the board will not be meeting again until April 14. Therefore, any changes to the current hybrid model would most likely not go into effect until at least the end of April.
As the discussion of reopening dragged late into the evening, board members seemed conflicted on which direction to take. Some seemed daunted by the logistical haul an expansion would require. Others, while recognizing the potential disruption a change could cause, did not want to completely abandon the idea.
"I think when we start breaking it down, the logistics of changing makes it really difficult ... I think it creates more problems than we solve by allowing more students to come into the buildings," Board President Jay Mason said. "I don't think changing at this moment right now is good for our system ... it's just not that easy to say CDC says three feet let's go."
Board member Liz Barrett made a motion to expand the number of days of hybrid instruction with several caveats. Her motion, which failed 2-5 with one abstention, would have required schools to rapidly expand the hybrid model only if it was possible based on size and numbers and if things like teacher assignments did not have to change.
Since no final decisions were made regarding the fourth quarter, FCPS will continue to operate as is while staff begins preparing for the next school year. The school system's stated plan is to open full-time, five days a week and still offer an all-virtual option to families that want it. There will be no hybrid option.
FCPS staff currently estimates that about 20 percent of families will choose the all-virtual route for the fall, but surveys will be conducted in the coming months.
The all-virtual option will look slightly different in the fall though, Alban said.
"All-virtual, it doesn't necessarily mean that if we have two students in the fourth-grade class at this school that they're going to be able to [stream] into the classroom with their peers it might mean they're going to be in fourth grade with kids from several other schools with a virtual fourth-grade teacher," she said.
Although discussions are still in the early stages, it seems possible virtual schooling could continue to be an option for FCPS students.
"For some families and students, they thrived in this and they want this and this is the 21st century, learning personalization, so why wouldn't we look at this as a way to move forward?" Alban said.
The board will discuss reopening again at its April 14. New motions could be offered to change things for the fourth quarter.