CHESTERTOWN — With about six weeks to go before students would typically return to school from summer vacation, most people are wondering what the first day of classes will look like for children amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Superintendent Karen Couch attended a June 30 Kent County Commissioners meeting for several items, which were unanimously approved, including a teacher salary incentive grant, an annual electronic transfer request, Maryland State Department of Education budget certification and three budget adjustments.
The conversation between Couch and the commissioners turned to talk of the process for reopening schools when Couch said she plans to attend a commissioners meeting in late July for further discussions.
“You (weren’t) going to get out of here without having that question asked, I’m sure,” Commissioner Ron Fithian said.
“I think there’s parents wanting to know now some kind of direction of what life might be like or not like,” President of the Commissioners Tom Mason added.
Couch said Kent County Public Schools is undergoing the same process all Maryland public school systems are going through: working on their recovery plan. That plan is due to the MSDE by Aug. 14.
Couch said her administration plans to present its recovery plan to the Kent County Board of Education July 13.
Couch said the school system has created three committees: instruction, operation and safety. She said the committee members include nurses, teachers, parents, support staff, administrators and principals.
Some of the work, she said, includes nurses determining what health rooms need to look like and how they need to be equipped differently in order to be safe for students and staff. Couch said the school system is using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security — or CARES — money to purchase personal protection equipment, barriers for secretaries, noting,
“It’s a pretty involved process that we have to look at for reopening,” she said.
While closed to the public, Couch said the school system’s central office, located in Rock Hall, has been open to staff who are “working every day.”
“The principals, the secretaries, the custodians have been to work full time. Maintenance has been to work full time,” Couch said. “And we need all hands on deck because this is taking, this is going to take a lot of preparation.”
Couch does not anticipate all students will be back in the physical school buildings all at once on the first day of school.
“I don’t anticipate that we’ll be turning on the switch and everyone is going to come back in as if nothing ever happened,” Couch said. “I do think we’ll be on modified schedules. I think it will be a hybrid.”
Couch said staff are in talks with teachers about the feasibility of an A/B schedule, “meaning half the kids come one day and half the kids come the other” as well as if teachers plan on returning at all.
“Because that’s the other thing — we may have parents that are anxious to have their kids to come back, but do we have the staff that is going to come back?” Couch said. “So it’s very complicated. Certainly I would never have thought that we would be in the situation that we’re in.”
Fithian said the school system may have “hesitant parents” as well.
Couch agreed. saying the school system may offer students the option of “going 100% remote, if that’s what the parent feels comfortable doing.”
“We’re just trying to figure it all out and it’s not an easy fix,” Couch said.
Mason acknowledged it is a difficult situation and expressed appreciation for Couch’s efforts.
Couch also said the school system will need to figure out how to transport students considering social distancing. She said there will probably be 24 students on each 72-seat bus.
Mason also asked Couch if the school system has saved money while the physical school buildings were closed.
“You should have saved some money these last three months when we weren’t taking children to school,” Mason said. “It should not have been as much electricity. I mean I don’t know, but is there any kind of figures?”
Couch said the school system has incurred new expenses, such as paying to more frequently clean the schools and buying personal protection equipment. Those funds were first paid out of pocket, but are reimbursed through the CARES Act
Elaborating on other new expenses, Couch said the money it costs to use buses to deliver meals to students is not covered through CARES. The school system also saw increased costs for people working in the cafeteria, which Couch said is not covered through CARES.
Couch said the dinners the schools have been providing might not be reimbursed either.
Mason said he’s “curious more than anything” if there are any savings.
Commissioner Bob Jacob said the Maryland Association of Counties has suggested counties keep track of expenses for when education reforms recommended by the state’s Kirwan commission come back up after having stalled this year, so counties can see “what you saved or didn’t save.”
Couch said there will be a record of expenses.