Frederick County Public Schools will implement a hybrid model in the second semester for all grades, barring any spikes or upward trends in local health metrics related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second semester begins Jan. 28.
The Frederick County Board of Education voted 6-0 Wednesday, with one abstention, to approve the plan.
The vote comes after months of parent protests, board member hesitation and failed votes on the reopening of schools.
The official motion that was voted on was put forth by board President Brad Young. It included a requirement that teachers and instructional staff report back to buildings on Jan. 13 and that all employees who were previously let go during the fall semester’s “Reduction in Force” resume employment on Jan. 1.
It also stated that “decisions to implement the hybrid model or small-group instruction will be determined by the superintendent in collaboration with the Frederick County Health Department based on a review of the metrics and guidances outlined by the Maryland Department of Health.”
Given the start of the second semester is still more than two months away, it is possible the start of the hybrid model could be delayed if the state or county sees a resurgence of the virus.
Before putting forth his motion, Young noted that numbers have been on the rise, but he added that he still supports approving the model.
“We could sit here today and say we’re turning [the plan] down because the numbers are going up, and they could change two weeks from now and be worse or they could be better ... we can’t call a meeting each day the metric numbers change,” he said.
Board member Rae Gallagher, who supported the motion, asked if there was a specific threshold or number that would halt the school system from starting the hybrid model or move them back to virtual once implemented.
FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban said there is not one threshold. Instead, the guidance that has been issued is based on a continuum, she said, and requires consultation from experts at the local health department, such as Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, with whom she has been having weekly meetings.
“Dr. Brookmyer felt very uncomfortable saying to us here’s the number. She wants to look at the continuum ... she wants to look at spread in the school,” Alban said. “She wants to be able to say to me... ‘Dr. Alban we have outbreaks in two schools, we need to really step back,' versus, 'Well, we’re sitting right there on the cusp but we don’t have any outbreaks.'”
The county’s current metrics, as of Wednesday, are close to the school system’s stated first threshold of 5 percent testing positivity rate. According to FCPS documents, if the testing positivity rate is above 5 percent, and there are more than 15 new cases per 100,000, in-person programming is expected to be limited or stopped.
The most recent Frederick County data reported the testing positivity rate as 4.7 percent and 16.84 cases per 100,000.
Despite supporting the motion, board Vice President Jay Mason expressed frustration at how residents of the community are not working to keep the virus at bay.
“As a community, we’re not doing what we need to do to be in a position to reopen schools ... we have to depend on everybody,” Mason said. “It’s not on the school system, it’s on the community, and if we can’t do that then we might not open this year. We're trending in the wrong direction.”
During the board’s discussion on the issue, the topic of concurrent teaching was once again brought up. Concurrent teaching is the idea that teachers would teach in-person and virtual students at the same time for portions of the day. FCPS staff previously said planning time for teachers would be increased by 30 percent in order to help with the new requirement.
Board members still seemed concerned over how it would work and what sort of demands would be placed on teachers.
Kevin Cuppett, executive director of curriculum, instruction and innovation for FCPS, said there is no expectation that concurrent teaching will occur for whole learning blocks or periods. He added that staff is collecting data and insight from teachers who are currently doing concurrent teaching with small-group and virtual students.
This feedback will be presented next week to the Frederick County Teachers Association led-workgroup, which has been working on the reopening plans, he said.
Board member Liz Barrett, who called into the meeting due to contracting COVID-19 herself, said she would like to see more creativity on teacher allocation and structuring of the school day.
“I do believe that there are enough students and enough staff and teachers who can be matched for a continuously improved virtual model,” she said.
Since teachers will be required to report back to buildings on Jan. 13, there are ongoing discussions on how their time will be split between continuing virtual learning and setting up their classrooms and planning for the return of students, according to Michael Markoe, deputy superintendent.
He said the school system is developing disciplinary procedures and regulations for students and staff who refuse to follow health guidelines and restrictions.
According to Jamie Aliveto, executive director of system accountability and school administration for FCPS, the school system is also gathering information on how to publicly report COVID-19 cases among staff and students.
“We don’t want to move too fast; we want to make sure that we do it right ... but we are confident that we will be able to produce a dashboard. We do believe that transparency is very important,” she said.
Board member Lois Jarman chose to abstain from Wednesday’s vote.
She ran to retain her seat in this year’s Board of Education race, but will most likely lose to a newcomer based on where the vote count currently stands—although official calls on the race have not been made.
Before the vote, Jarman said she would not be voting on the issue because she felt it was imperative for the newly elected members to have their voices heard and be a part of the decision. The newly elected members will take their seats in December.