The decision to suspend small group instruction and winter sports practices and return Frederick County Public Schools to an entirely virtual mode was made quickly after the New Year following spikes in county health metrics.
Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Terry Alban said in an email Monday to the News-Post that the surge of cases seen after Thanksgiving combined with concerns over the growing number of hospitalizations in the county prompted the decision, which was announced to the public on Sunday.
Alban said school system leaders and County Health Officer Dr. Barbara Brookmyer had been closely monitoring the metrics since Dec. 29.
“We talked about the post-holiday surge from Thanksgiving that hit a peak on Dec. 11. If we saw a similar surge after Christmas and New Year, it could be worse because our numbers were already so high,” Alban said. “We talked about the potential impact this could have on small groups, sports, and hybrid instruction. We knew we would need to keep monitoring the data. By the end of the week, the numbers were getting worse.”
All small-group instruction and winter sports practices for the school system are now suspended until further notice.
Lane Gregory, a parent of two FCPS students, feels the school system made the right call, noting the rising metrics across Frederick County.
“There is no way to track what school employees, teachers or students were doing over break, so the risk is just too high. Virtual instruction is far from ideal, but I just don’t see how anything in person is sustainable right now,” she said.
Mia Martinez, a senior at Brunswick High School and the student member of the Frederick County Board of Education, said she has been a proponent of bringing students back to school, but she feels safety needs to be the top priority.
“My peers are struggling and need to get back to school. With that being said, their safety comes first, always. I am happy that we at least have a plan set, so that when it is safe to return we are ready to go,” Martinez said.
When asked how this decision will affect plans to implement a hybrid learning model beginning Jan. 28, Superintendent Alban said there will be additional announcements made regarding plans for the hybrid model later this week.
The additional announcements are also expected to provide further guidance to teachers, all of whom were slated to return to school buildings on Jan. 13. For the time being, teachers are still being given access to their classrooms if they wish to use them to teach their virtual classes.
Other FCPS employees such as food service workers and bus drivers who had been let go during the fall’s “Reduction in Force” resumed employment on Jan. 1 in anticipation of FCPS transitioning into a hybrid learning model.
Alban said these employees will still return to work regardless of the step back from in-person learning.
“Food services continue as they have throughout the pandemic. Bus drivers have training and inspections that must be completed. We want them ready to go when we bring students back,” she said.
As of Monday, Frederick County was reporting 12,054 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 186 cases added within the past 24 hours. The positivity rate was 11.5 percent — a significant rise from the 5.9 percent positivity rate that was reported on Thanksgiving.
The only way small-group instruction and winter sports practices can resume is if the metrics begin to trend positively again.
“We need to see the metrics decrease from the highs we are experiencing right now,” Alban said.
Some research has suggested the risk of transmission in schools is low. Various counties across the U.S. and school systems in other countries have reopened fully with restrictions in place and seen success.
But Alban said guidance from the Maryland Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control suggests that such high metrics in a county can translate to a higher risk of transmission in schools.
“We kept small groups and sports going longer than most counties in the state ... in December we began to see significant increases in the number of positive cases and outbreaks in our schools. Obviously what is occurring in our county is mirrored in our schools,” she said. “We’d like to see the various metrics move downward before returning students to our buildings.”