Nearly a week after the Board of Education rescinded its decision to expand hybrid education at elementary schools, Superintendent Terry Alban is trying to carve out a path forward — one that has elementary students returning to school four days a week as soon as possible.
Numerous negotiations have taken place since the vote, Alban says, and the school board will meet for a closed session Wednesday afternoon to discuss progress.
“The board felt it would be best to rescind the decisions and asked me to go back and negotiate with all three employee associations to change the [memorandum of understanding],” Alban said during a virtual discussion with about 100 community members Monday night. “It is my highest priority to work with the associations to get the MOU changed and approved so that we can bring more elementary students back for four days of face-to-face instruction.”
Alban said the school system will send out an update to the public once a tentative agreement is reached. The current MOU was finalized in February between the board and all three employee associations. It states, among other things, that 6 feet between students and employees must be maintained, and the only way the agreement can be voided is if all emergency protocols related to COVID-19 are lifted. If not, the MOU is set to be in place until June 30.
Numerous parents have expressed concern, however, that the board is being influenced too heavily by employee unions.
Matt Corrigan, a parent of three FCPS students, told the News-Post he was upset with the board’s backtrack.
“[I’m] profoundly disappointed that FCPS isn’t going to follow updated CDC guidelines, despite the board's initial decision. Bureaucracy is coming before our children’s best interests,” Corrigan said.
But Alban said it’s not simply a matter of appeasing the unions.
“When your employees are motivated and feel supported, they’re going to bring their best and do their best … and I think that’s one of the reasons we developed MOUs,” Alban said. “And I think it’s one of the reasons that when I sit down with our high school seniors and ask them, 'What’s the best part about FCPS?' The first thing they talk about is the teachers.”
The road ahead
Alban is also seeking to provide clarity — as much clarity as possible — about plans for summer learning and the next school year.
The Board of Education previously said it was committed to bringing back students five days a week, and Alban said that continues to be the goal. But things could change based on the pandemic that's forced constant shifts for the past 14 months.
Regardless of what mandates are in place, though, families will be given a choice. Families may choose to stay completely virtual or change their learning format at the end of each academic quarter, according to FCPS officials.
Based on preliminary data, Alban said it's likely about 11 percent of FCPS families will choose to stay completely virtual in the fall.
FCPS is developing a permanent, full-time virtual school for middle and elementary school students similar to the virtual high school already in place.
FCPS wants to stay away from any forms of hybrid next year, but Alban made it clear this week that it's not off the table.
“It is not what any of us want to do. It is the least desirable option,” she said.
In speaking with community members Monday, Alban also addressed the school system's plans to support students who have fallen behind over the last year. The goal is not to try and make up for all the losses by the end of this school year, Alban said, but rather to put resources in place for the summer and fall to help bring students up to where they need to be.
Alban indicated she's against holding kids back and having them repeat grades or classes.
“I don’t want to send a message to kids that you’re going to be retained and you failed when we recognize what everybody has been struggling with this year,” she said.
For high schoolers, improvement plans could mean putting students in classes that help them climb the ladder to academic goals. For elementary schoolers, it could mean multi-age groupings for subjects. It’s all about recognizing where kids are, Alban said.
One viewer asked about summer school and staffing challenges. FCPS recently admitted recruiting teachers for summer school has been difficult. Teachers are burned out after a tough year of virtual and hybrid learning, FCPS officials said.
Alban said the school system is looking at numerous options to staff summer school, including reaching out to recent college graduates and former employees who retired within the past five years. Teachers may also share summer school assignments to lighten the load.
Regarding fall sports, Alban said no announcements have been made by The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, but she expects more information once the current spring sports season is finished.
One viewer asked why fifth grade graduations are being held virtually when high school graduations are being held in person.
Angela Corrigan, coordinator of student achievement for FCPS and no relation to Matt Corrigan, responded, “Unlike our high schools, elementary schools do not have the outdoor seating or stadiums and other resources necessary such as sound systems to be able to provide an outdoor end-of-the-year celebration for all fifth grade students.”