ROCK HALL — The Kent County Board of Education has officially approved the school system's pandemic recovery plan, which calls for starting the fall off with distance learning, while some teachers have voiced concerns over being required to return to their classrooms to provide virtual instruction.
The unanimous vote on the Kent County Public Schools recovery plan came Monday, Aug. 10 after a lengthy presentation by Superintendent Karen Couch and administrators on the 32-page document. Couch also presented the plan again the following day to the Kent County Commissioners.
There were three task force committees comprising administrators, teachers, staff, parents and community members who participated in developing safety plans, reviewing instruction models and looking at school system operations.
"As we began planning for our reopening plan there were a number of things that we had to keep in mind. and our task force team charge was to examine the safest way for our students to return to school. That is our number one priority," Couch told the county commissioners Aug. 11. "You can tell that we did our homework because it's a pretty extensive plan that we have here."
As outlined in the plan, the first day of school will be Sept. 8. Students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade will participate in remote learning through the first quarter. Then, if is it safe to do so, the school system will move to a hybrid education model for the second quarter in November. Due to scheduling challenges, high schoolers will continue in the fully remote model for the entire first semester through Jan. 28.
"We're hoping for the best, planning for the worst. And if everything goes as planned, we hope that we'll have our kids back in school for quarter two for the hybrid model," Couch told the county commissioners.
A previously presented version of that hybrid model would see the number of students physically in school buildings cut in half. Students would be broken into two cohorts, which would then have a schedule alternating between in-school and distance learning.
The recovery plan also states that as schools open back up to students, parents may opt to continue with fully remote education.
Administrators are hopeful that with a new distance learning platform called Schoology, this fall's remote lessons and student achievement tracking will be much better than what was seen over the spring when schools throughout the state shut down. For example, teachers will reportedly be better able to monitor attendance and provide feedback.
"We know the spring could have been a lot better. We were forced into a very quick shutdown of school and I think our teachers did a really good job, but we can do better. And that is our plan — is to do much better in the fall. And we've been planning for it all summer," Couch said at the county commissioners meeting.
The recovery plan includes sample schedules for students, with four days of live remote instruction each week. There are also periods for small group instruction, work assignments and movement activities.
The synchronous schedule requires students to be on their devices at specified times during the day.
"We want to stress to the parents that it is in their child's best interest to be involved during the synchronous teaching opportunities that we have available," Couch said at the Aug. 10 Board of Education meeting, adding that teachers will know which families may otherwise need some different learning accommodations.
Administrators said the school system will try to work with families who need flexibility with scheduling.
One option being explored for families with both parents working away from home during school hours is community learning hubs. Churches and local organizations would open up their spaces for small groups of children under adult supervision.
"We're trying to be as helpful to our families as possible because we know that remote is going to be a hardship for some of our families," Couch told the county commissioners Aug. 11.
A point of contention with some teachers is Couch's expectation that they provide virtual lessons from their school classrooms. The teachers asked that they be given the option to work from home due to family obligations or health safety concerns.
Some held a protest Aug. 10 outside the school system's central office in Rock Hall prior to the start of the Board of Education meeting.
"We discovered that we have a lot teachers who have a myriad of reasons why they can't come back to school," said Ashlee Langer, president of the Kent County Teachers Association, as she stood outside the central office. "So as a group we decided we wanted to come and express our desire for some flexible options."
During the public participation portion of the Aug. 10 Board of Education meeting, emails from teachers, staff and supporters were read aloud calling for flexibility.
"Providing a choice will allow us to make decisions based on what is best for our own health and the health of our families. Providing for choice will allow us for better social distancing within each building," wrote one teacher. "Teachers want to come back to school more than anyone, but only when it is safe for all."
While Couch said at the board meeting that it is her expectation that staff reports to work, administrators are looking at accommodations. Couch said the children of KCPS staff members will be able to attend their virtual classes from their assigned school.
This requires the student to be enrolled in KCPS. Then, for example, if the student is a fourth-grader assigned to Rock Hall Elementary School, that is where he or she will be able to go.
"Our mission is to teach our kids. And we have to have teachers in the building to teach our kids and we have to have them available to teach our kids. And if they're concerned about providing the time to their own children, then they're not going to be dedicated to providing time to everyone else's children," Couch told the county commissioners, when discussing the effort to provide accommodations.
Couch also said at the Aug. 10 Board of Education meeting that those with health concerns will be able to fill out a telework application with supporting documentation. The teacher would be required to maintain the synchronous teaching schedule and their designated work space would have to meet the approval of administrators.
School meals will continue to be distributed and efforts are continuing to ensure access internet access for students, such as families being able to sign out mobile hotspots and buses being equipped with Wi-Fi signals.
At the Aug. 11 county commissioners meeting, Couch thanked them for expanding internet access.
"I think with what happened in the spring, internet really should be a utility," Couch said.
Board of Education members and the county commissioners commended Couch and those involved in developing the plan for their efforts.
Board member Wendy Costa said she thinks it is a good plan.
"But I also think the students themselves really need to take responsibility also and really do their best. There's only so much teachers and administrators can do. And parents and students must take responsibility to make this work," Costa said.
Board member Nivek Johnson said he wants to make sure the school system is continuing to be equitable across the board for students.
At the Aug. 11 county commissioners meeting, President Tom Mason said he would not want to have to go through the what the school system is facing. He said decisions are going to be made that not everyone will like.
Couch agreed that it is has been very trying.
"You can see that it's been an enormous amount of work put into this plan and trying to prepare for the unknown," Commissioner Ron Fithian told Couch. "I, for one, wish you luck."
"I want to thank you for all your support. It means a lot," Couch replied.
The plan is available through the KCPS website, www.kent.k12.md.us.