The Frederick County Board of Education planned to discuss which students would be brought in for small, in-school instruction this fall, but not much progress was made related to the topic during their meeting Wednesday.
After deciding last week to start the 2020-2021 school year in a virtual mode, the board had also agreed that certain groups of Frederick County Public Schools students would be brought in for some face-to-face instruction. It was suggested that these students be those whose education might be severely impacted without in-person instruction such as Special Education students, English Language Learner students, and the county’s youngest learners.
However, board members went in circles Wednesday over how to choose which students would be brought in. Some members wanted individual school administrators to determine which students were brought in, but others wanted there to be parameters set at a system-wide level.
FCPS staff recommended starting the school year fully virtual and allowing school administrators and teachers time during the first two weeks to determine which students would be brought in for some classroom instruction.
But the conversation evolved into many accompanying issues such as what if staff did not want to come in to teach due to health or safety concerns or how would it be equitable to say one group needed in-person instruction over another?
“Bringing our kids back in small groups is not equitable, it’s just not possible...we have other parents who just want their kids in school so you know, looking at this through an equity lens is just impossible,” board Vice President Jay Mason said. “We have kids that need to be in school for obvious reasons so I’m still not sure how we choose...I’m farther away from small groups than I was last week.”
There were also questions regarding physical space and how certain schools would accommodate groups of students over others simply based on the space available.
Board member Liz Barrett listed certain student groups that she felt needed to be brought in. She named Special Education students, English Learners, students who are enrolled at the Career and Technology Center, LYNX Program students, and dual enrollment students among others.
With special education students, Barrett pointed out that FCPS has a legal obligation to provide their learning, most of which is not conducive to an online environment. However, Mason pointed out that some special education students, who have sensory or other complications, need physical contact which in turn poses a risk in terms of health and safety.
This circled back to the point of whether teachers have been asked if they are comfortable coming back into the buildings to teach, a point which board members Lois Jarman and Karen Yoho were adamant needed to be addressed and figured out before anything else.
“I’ve seen principals in the past coerce staff at the benefit of students... I can see undue pressure being put on teachers to force them to come in,” Yoho said.
Yoho made a motion that teachers and instructional staff only come back into buildings to teach in-person on a voluntary basis, which was unanimously approved.
Board members then voted on a motion to have FCPS staff return to the board with a systemwide plan for action regarding which student groups should be brought in for in-person instruction and all the logistical pieces related to it before they make a final decision.
It is unclear when staff will return to the school board with such a plan. The next meeting of the Board of Education is scheduled for Aug. 19. The first day of virtual learning is Aug. 31.
Board members also approved three other motions related to the virtual model for the fall semester. Indoor FCPS facilities will be available to outside organizations that previously provided before- and after-school care but are now expanding to full day care. Swimming pools at schools will be available to outside organizations and FCPS activities. For the outdoor grounds at FCPS locations, only FCPS employees and students will be allowed to use them for physical conditioning related to sports.
Additionally, any extra or co-curricular activity that can be accomplished virtually while FCPS is in a virtual instruction mode will be allowed to continue.
The topic of how to handle personnel whose roles do not translate over to a virtual environment and their salaries were also brought up and the decision was made to discuss it in a closed session since it retains to employees. However, before moving into a closed session, Barrett stated that she was uncomfortable with the idea of furloughing or laying off FCPS employees and would like to see creative solutions put forth on how to handle the issue.
“I would ask specifically that we consider things like temporary or permanent pay cuts to central office staff to alleviate some of the salary issues,” Barrett said. “I think we need to share pain and share burden and not just leave it on our lowest paid staff who often are not benefited.”