ROCK HALL — The Kent County Board of Education has unanimously approved starting the school year on a virtual platform.
As voted on at a Monday, July 27 board meeting and due to continuing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the three elementary schools and Kent County Middle School will conduct remote learning for the first quarter, Sept. 8 through Nov. 10. The first semester at Kent County High School, running Sept. 8 through Jan. 28, will be fully remote.
The boards of education in Queen Anne's and Caroline counties had previously approved going fully digital to start the school year.
"Decisions for reopening our schools are not easy decisions to make," said Kent County Superintendent of Schools Karen Couch at the July 27 meeting. "The feedback from our parent and staff surveys made it very clear that while many families are interested in a face-to-face option, there continues to be discomfort and concerns about moving forward with fully re-opening our schools after Labor Day."
The votes came after more than two hours of presentations that night by Kent County Public Schools administrators, discussion among board members and public comment submitted via email and read aloud. Among the concerns raised were the amount of screen time for students — especially the youngest ones — and how parents who have returned to work will be able to manage their children's at-home education.
"How are children of working families expected to attend a fully remote day?" a member of the public wrote in email read to the board. "Are we expected to choose between our jobs and our children's education?"
One public effort to help working parents could lie in community learning hubs.
Couch spoke about churches and other sites offering to allow students to use their spaces and internet connectivity in small groups with adult supervision.
When schools shut down this spring due to COVID-19, the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice helped the school system expand food distribution for students.
Similar to that effort, Couch said local advocacy group Support Our Schools wants to partner with the school system on creating a list of community learning hubs and resources for families.
"Much like this community came together for the food drive, I think this could be a positive for our community because we could pull together and try to meet the needs of our students who are in need of adult supervision," Couch said.
The decision to go digital this fall is something of an about-face for the school system. Administrators presented earlier this month a possible hybrid model, in which students would be divided into two cohorts with a two-week schedule rotation.
In the first week, cohort A would be in the classroom for three days, with digital learning on the other two days, while cohort B would have two days of classroom time to three days of digital. The following week, it would be cohort B with three days in school to cohort A's two days.
Couch offered numerous reasons for the change.
She spoke about concerns from Kent County health officials over rising positivity rates for COVID-19. She questioned whether schools will receive all the protective supplies needed in time for the start of classes. She spoke about the challenges of ensuring the system's youngest students maintain social distancing and wear masks.
She also said there is large percentage of parents who indicated that they would opt for a fully digital learning option.
"In short, at this time I find it extremely difficult to defend that we are 100% safe to return to in-person schools for all of our students," Couch said.
Principals Arlene Reading, Galena Elementary School; Mary Helen Spiri, Kent County Middle School; and Dale Kevin Brown, Kent County High School, presented sample digital learning schedules to board members. The schedules are all synchronous, meaning students are expected to be attending classes digitally at scheduled times.
Administrators said there would be flexibility within the schedules to ease concerns over the amount of screen time. Screen time for younger students was a chief concern in part because it is challenging for them to sit in one place for an extended period of time.
The administrators also touted the school system's new online learning platform Schoology. Through that platform, attendance can be tracked and digital classroom sessions will be more secure than the popular teleconferencing app Zoom. Teachers also will be able to record their lessons as they are giving them.
The board also approved a block schedule proposed for the middle school and a new four-period schedule for high school students.
The modified block schedule for middle schoolers shows that on Mondays through Thursdays, students will have two 50-minute teacher-led instructional periods, two independent 50-minute work periods with opportunities for teacher assistance and a 30-minute health and physical education session. Fridays will see students participate in art, media, technology or music projects and provided with small group or individual support.
The high school schedule is going from a seven-period day to four periods Mondays through Thursdays. Each 80-minute period will be broken into 45 minutes of instruction followed by 35 minutes of teacher-supervised work. The Friday schedule shows periods for small group instruction and support.
Brown and non-voting student board member Rachel Jones favored the longer class periods for the high school. Giving art class as an example, Jones, a rising senior, said with the previously shorter periods it felt like students were just getting out project supplies when it would be time to pack everything back up.
An additional concern with virtual learning from the spring shutdown has been the quality of online lessons. Administrators spoke at the July 27 meeting about efforts to train teachers and improve digital classes, with professional development time built into teachers' schedules this fall.
"We still need a lot training with virtual learning and virtual teaching," Brown said. "We're going to make certain they're experts in that field."
Teachers will be required to be in their classrooms, even as students are learning from home. They will be required to self-screen before entering buildings. Those who cannot be in schools due to health issues will be able to apply for time off as allowed under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
"But we really believe that it sets a high standard for our teachers to come in. They can social distance in their classroom," Couch said.
Couch also spoke about wanting to be able to bring into schools those students with the greatest need for additional support. She wants to start with a small number, when it is safe, and then bring in more students who need additional assistance as the fall progresses.
While the school system does not need to submit its reopening plan to the Maryland State Department of Education until next month, Board of Education President Joe Goetz wanted to move forward with a vote July 27 giving the entire school community the chance to address questions and concerns about the plan as presented.
"I think that it's our best interest to act now so that not only do parents have a final decision, but also the school system can start moving," Goetz said.
The presentation to the board, including sample schedules for the elementary, middle and high schools, is available via go.boarddocs.com/mabe/kcps/Board.nsf/Public. Click on the July 27 meeting agenda. The plan is posted under "Education Services."