The startling request came at the end of a long meeting of the Frederick County Board of Education, where the main topic of discussion was the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing the complaints about the needs of quarantined students who are exposed to the virus, and complaints from principals and teachers about the demands on them caused by the continuing spread of the deadly disease, FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban posed a question to the board:
“I would like to get specific, clear direction for me and for our staff as to what would it take, and when would we look to have FCPS choose to move away from our current in-person instructional model.”
News-Post reporter Jillian Atelsek wrote that the query seemed to strike some board members at this Sept. 8 meeting as a curveball, but it was more like a high, hard fastball. Or maybe more like a hand grenade.
Three weeks into the new school year, the system is struggling to respond to the crisis. Nobody — from parents and children to teachers and staff to the administration and board — is happy. Too often, the school system seems to have been caught flat-footed.
The board members and school officials were reviewing the district’s policies for curtailing COVID-19 and supporting students in quarantine. For more than two hours, board members listened to teachers and administrators listing their concerns. At the same time, they know the frustration in the community is rising.
“I had a parent tell me that this year for their student is a waste,” our reporter quoted board member Jason Johnson as saying. “It broke my heart. And it doesn’t have to be. We can be creative.”
The challenges are immense. Alban said more than 1,000 students have been in quarantine every week and a new school outbreak is occurring every day.
Jamie Aliveto, the system’s accountability director, led three principals and one teacher replying to board questions about social distancing and quarantining students. They focused primarily on managing contact tracing and supporting families in quarantine. The lack of simple answers was frustrating to the board.
Missy Dirks, president of the teachers union, said instructors were not getting regular updates about virus protocols, and that her members were concerned about the support for students who may have to endure lengthy quarantines.
Concurrent teaching — where instructors teach students who are in the classroom while simultaneously teaching via Google Meet — does not work well for anyone, she said. Allowing quarantined students to “listen in” to classes via Google Meet also would not work, she said, because they could not ask questions.
The system is close to hiring a firm to provide virtual tutoring services to all middle and high schoolers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which should help children stay up to date in school. But it does not replace being in a classroom — in person or virtually.
The system must first guard our children’s health, with the virus’ delta variant raging. National statistics show that as many as one quarter of all new cases are occurring among children, and in some states, pediatric wards are filling up. And children under 12 cannot be vaccinated. It might not be until the end of the year before a vaccine is approved for them.
It was in this context that Superintendent Alban dropped her bombshell.
While several board members quickly expressed support for keeping kids in school five days a week, it might not be that simple.
If the virus continues to spread in our community — thanks primarily to the adults who continue to refuse to get vaccinated to protect our children and themselves — the board might have to look at a larger virtual learning program. Students forced to stay away from school for long or repeated quarantines will soon fall behind in their classes, and they might never catch up.
No one knows for certain how long this virus will spread, nor how it might mutate into even more dangerous variants. The board should be looking at their options, if worst-case scenarios happen.