If Frederick County’s health metrics remain as is, the school system would most likely delay implementing a hybrid model for next semester.
That’s the message Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Terry Alban shared during her scheduled “Superintendent’s Chat” Monday night with parents.
“Right now, Frederick County is trending in the wrong direction ... and so right now I don’t think you’d see us expand into hybrid,” she said.
The school board voted last week to approve a plan that 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. As of Monday, Frederick County’s positivity rate was 5.5 percent, and there were 22.29 cases per 100,000. According to the school system’s published health metrics guide, these numbers would warrant limited or no in-person programming.
The setting for the discussion also underscored the situation. Alban has traditionally held these meetings in person, and participants are able to speak directly with the superintendent. However, due to the pandemic, Monday’s chat was held virtually via Google Meet, and attendees were asked to either submit questions ahead of time or ask questions during the meeting via the chat box feature.
The bulk of Monday’s meeting was spent going over the details of how the hybrid model would be implemented. Alban also answered specific questions.
Many parents, for instance, have been wondering what metrics might prevent the school system from moving forward with a hybrid model. Alban explained there isn’t one specific number but a range.
Decisions will be made in consultation with local health officials, though Alban said one factor that is taken seriously is the number of positive cases in schools.
It only takes two linked cases to declare an outbreak, and according to Alban, since FCPS started bringing in small groups of students in September, there has only been one outbreak.
“That outbreak was two staff members ... right now, we have not seen a situation in any of our schools where the virus has passed from a staff member to a student or vice versa,” she said.
The start of the second semester is still more than two months away, and Alban said she hopes to give the community at least two weeks’ notice.
“I’m going to do my best to give people a warning ... but things have changed rapidly, and we know that about this virus, it can be very unpredictable,” she said. “If things spike, I may not be able to give that two-week notice ... we will do our best to communicate with you as quickly as we can.”
Alban also pointed out that the state could step in between now and Jan. 28 and make the decision for all Maryland public schools as it did in March, stripping FCPS of any local control.
During the discussion, Alban also talked about concurrent teaching, which is expected to come into play during a hybrid model. Concurrent teaching is the idea that teachers would teach in-person and virtual students at the same time for portions of the day.
Board members, parents and teachers have expressed concern over the idea. Many have worried that concurrent teaching asks teachers to do the impossible, putting too much on their plates.
Alban said she is confident in the ability of FCPS teachers to handle this responsibility.
“In the summer there were so many teachers who were very, very nervous about going virtual ... I think the fear they have about concurrent teaching is similar to the fear they had before the start of the year,” Alban said. “I’m not saying that that doesn’t mean it’s going to take work and it’s going to be a little bit challenging.”
She added the school system is developing tools and resources to help teachers manage new teaching methods, including acquiring headsets and movable desks.
A chat participant asked about virtual classroom management, particularly regarding students turning on their cameras during synchronous learning time, and if FCPS was going to establish countywide procedures and guidelines or leave it up to individual schools to decide.
As of now, students are not required to turn on their cameras during live, synchronous learning sessions.
Alban said there is an ongoing discussion about that topic between head office and school principals.
“A lot of our secondary teachers have talked about the challenge of connecting with students when all they see an initial icon ... I don’t know where we’ll land on that,” Alban said. “I know some teachers have, on their own, started saying I want your camera on or I’m going to lower your grade for today. So that is to be determined.”
The matter is complicated, she said, because some parents are not comfortable with their children turning on their cameras.
When asked how the school system plans to bolster students who are thriving under a virtual learning environment, Alban said FCPS is considering offering families a choice for a sole online education. They plan on surveying parents to gauge interest.
“Out of this pandemic, there are some things we are learning and discovering that we want to carry forward, and [we are] definitely trying to look at more options for virtual learning for our students who find that to be a powerful modem,” Alban said.
She also told parents that if they feel their children are not being challenged enough with virtual learning to first reach out to the teachers and principals at their schools.
As Monday’s meeting came to a close, many attendees sent messages in the chat box thanking Alban for her time, and Daryl Boffman, executive director of public affairs, sought to assure those whose questions hadn’t been addressed that they would receive a follow-up from the school system.