Everything was looking so good for the Frederick County Public Schools in April and May, and even well into June.
Plans were well underway for a return to in-person instruction for almost all students for the fall term. The coronavirus pandemic seemed to be fading.
But, like a recurring nightmare you just cannot shake, COVID-19 and its deadly delta variant came roaring back in late July and into the beginning of school in late August.
Cases spiked in Frederick County, hospitalizations rose, another local patient died. Forty-one teachers and students tested positive for COVID, an outbreak was officially declared in one school, and 600 children were quarantined — and that was just in the first week of the new semester.
And the school system seems to have been unprepared, especially to handle the large number of quarantined children.
Unlike last school year, when students who were not able to attend school in person could attend online, the children in quarantine this year cannot log into a virtual class for the duration of their absence.
The virtual classroom program is much smaller than it was last year, and it was set up to take care of those few children whose parents wanted them to stay at home. It was not designed to help those children who have to stay at home, because they are being quarantined.
Board member Liz Barrett, in an interview with News-Post reporter Jillian Atelsek, sharply criticized Superintendent Terry Alban’s planning for quarantine learning and her communication with the public.
Barrett told our reporter that parents do not understand that the county’s all-virtual classrooms are full. Even if space were available, she said, some students no longer have the school-issued Chromebooks they relied on for at-home internet access. Others do not have parents who are able to coordinate child care in the event of a mandatory quarantine.
“The amount of confusion at this point in the pandemic is unacceptable to me,” Barrett said. “In [Alban’s] presentations, when she said we were ready — I didn’t anticipate this many holes. And absolutely, I expected normal first week of school pivots, with some bus issues, some late enrollment. But the level of chaos associated with this right now is outrageous.”
Instead of sending quarantined students to a virtual classroom, teachers are required to upload materials to the learning management platform Schoology, and students are expected to complete assignments largely on their own.
In an email to the News-Post, Alban wrote that “school leaders work with the families to offer tutoring options,” but she acknowledged that FCPS doesn’t “have staff available to support tutoring at every school yet, so the options will vary across the system right now.”
From outside the system, it looks like the best short-term solution may be to allow children who are out of school for short periods to audit classes in the virtual program, just to keep them involved with the classroom. Trusting children to log on to Schoology, get all their assignments and then work independently seems riskier.
The new wave of COVID infections did arise pretty fast, so we are loathe to accuse the system of failing the kids. But it is clear that school administrators should have been quicker on their feet.
We know this is not the end of the pandemic, and not the last time school administrators will need to cope with another crisis in education. They need to be more creative and more nimble as situations evolve.