Frederick County Public Schools students and staff will continue to operate under a virtual learning model until at least the end of the semester following two failed votes at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting.
The motions made Wednesday would have allowed the school system's youngest learners to begin returning to school under a hybrid model. The first motion that was put to a vote would have brought back all students in grades pre-K through second and would have expanded the small group, in-person learning. This motion failed four to three. It received support from Board President Brad Young, and board members Michael Bunitsky and Liz Barrett. It also received support from the student member.
The second motion was more restricted, with only pre-K and kindergarten students coming back into buildings. It failed five to two. Young and Bunitsky were the only members who voted to support it. It also received support from the student member.
Board members spent more than two hours discussing the reopening plans. Many seemed hesitant to move forward without more assurances in place that they could keep students and staff safe from COVID-19 if they were to return to school.
Board Vice President Jay Mason pointed out that cases have already arisen within pods of students who are doing in-person conditioning for sports and in-person learning.
"The problem is we still have a lot of people who are getting [COVID-19]...I feel for the families that aren't having success right now. Every day at my house isn't great," Mason said. "I don't know how we bring them back in the school and do it safely, I just don't know how we do that."
Much of the discussion also focused on staffing. Jamie Aliveto, executive director of System Accountability and School Administration for FCPS, made it clear to board members early on that it would be difficult to expand small group learning if teachers were not comfortable returning to the classroom.
"We have said since April, we cannot bring students back into the building until staff are back into the building. Staff have to be comfortable with the new protocol, comfortable with the new way of doing business. We have to get good at it first before we expand further," she said.
A survey recently published by FCPS said that 17 percent of the almost 3,000 staff surveyed did not plan to work in-person for the 2020-2021 school year. Young made the point that if a hybrid model was approved by the board, teachers would be required to teach in-person, per the current agreements between FCPS and the Frederick County Teachers Association.
Part of transitioning into a hybrid model would be concurrent teaching, the idea that teachers would teach in-person and virtual students at the same time for portions of the day. FCPS staff said planning time for teachers would be increased by 30 percent in order to help with this new requirement.
Many board members seemed concerned about how staff would handle this.
"I think we're asking [teachers] with this concurrent learning plan to be super-humans," board member Rae Gallagher said.
Board members Liz Barrett and Karen Yoho expressed concern at rushing into a new model without making sure the plans are perfect. Yoho suggested waiting to move into a hybrid model until the next semester, which is supposed to begin on Jan. 28.
"Why are we rushing to try to do a crappy job? Why don't we take the time?" Yoho said. "I know there are students hurting, but if we do this not to the best of our ability, not in the way that our teachers feel prepared, we're just slap-dashing it together and I don't see that ultimately that's going to benefit students either."
Young and Bunitsky seemed to be more favorable to begin to bring back students.
"What we have to do is use the information that we know and put in place a plan that is as safe as possible...if we're going to sit and wait until this is 100 percent gone, we're not going to be back in our schools for two years, probably," Young said.
Since the motions failed, it is unlikely that any changes will be made to the current learning environment for this semester. Based on Wednesday's night vote, Young said he is under the impression that students will continue virtual learning until at least January.
He said he was disappointed with the way the board voted, but he has to support the outcome.
"I really felt we needed to get the younger ones back...because they are struggling," he said.
When asked if there was a concern about rushing new plans, Young said he did not feel there were any hasty actions being taken, as it would have been a month until the hybrid model was implemented.
"We spent four months perfecting the plan...the health metrics are good...and it would have given us great info to see how it works," he said.
It is unclear when any reopening plans will be up for discussion again by the board.