ROCK HALL — As school systems throughout the state are trying to figure out how to hold classes this fall, the Kent County Board of Education got its first look at a possible framework for instruction here that will see students receive a mix in-person and remote lessons.
That framework was presented to the board Monday, July 13; the meeting was livestreamed for the public on Facebook. The presentation included plans for the elementary schools and Kent County Middle School. Work is still underway on a framework for Kent County High School.
Overall, the idea is to cut the number of students in classrooms by half. As presented, there would be a cohort A and a cohort B. Cohort A would attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesday, cohort B on Wednesdays and Thursday. Fridays would alternate each week, with cohort A attending on Friday one week, then cohort B the following Friday.
"All of us want what is best for our kids," said Superintendent Karen Couch. "If we had our wish, we could just turn the switch back on and everybody would be back to school full time and everything would be back to normal."
The board is being asked to vote on the plan Aug. 10, as it must be submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education Aug. 14.
Board members offered no outright opposition to the plan, nor did any members of the public submitted statements against it during the meeting. The board agreed to hold another public meeting to discuss details of the framework at 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 27.
"Any way we go with this, it's going to continue to evolve. And I don't think going backwards or restarting is the way to go," said Joe Goetz, board president, on moving forward with the proposed model. "I think in a week, two weeks, we'll get further down the road."
Schools in Maryland closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, initially with expectations of being able to reopen before the semester ended. That did not happen and students finished out their year via remote learning.
The Maryland State Department of Education has offered options and guidelines for how individual school systems might start the fall semester but with no state-mandated plan put forth, the school systems have been tasked with determining their own courses for the fall.
Kent County Public Schools organized three committees comprising administrators, teachers and staff to review key areas of reopening: safety, instruction and operations. Additional input was sought via online surveys.
The models under consideration are fully remote, fully in-person and a hybrid. The state has not shifted to the third phase of Gov. Larry Hogan's reopening plan, which means the fully in-person model is out. One survey conducted by Kent County Public Schools shows 66.5% percent of the 367 respondents preferring a mix of in-person and remote learning, while 33.5% picked fully remote.
On July 13, Gina Jachimowicz, Kent County Public Schools' director of teaching learning, said the plan is to continue to seek input from the community and board members to shape the best possible plan.
Couch said the goal also is to ensure flexibility should there be a change in the status of the pandemic, allowing schools to either open up more if the health crisis eases or go 100% digital learning in the event of an outbreak. Likewise, she said, there needs to be flexibility if parents start their children fully remote and decide that they do want them join a classroom cohort.
With the dual-cohort model proposed for the elementary and middle schools, students would be able to maintain proper social distancing in their classrooms. They would still receive those specials and electives like art, which would be held in the students' assigned classrooms, and physical education. Student meals from the cafeteria would likewise be delivered to classrooms.
The days would end earlier than the school system's standard schedule. Elementary schools would be dismissed at 2:25 p.m., the middle school at 1:15 p.m. That would allow more time for teachers to offer digital learning and for the custodial staff to sanitize buildings.
One parent emailed the board during the meeting to ask about making the dual-cohort schedule so that students get three consecutive days in one week and two the next.
Couch said that was previously discussed, using Wednesday instead of Friday as the alternating day. That schedule would have cohort A in week one attending Monday through Wednesday, while in week two cohort B would attend Wednesday through Friday.
Jachimowicz said high school administrators are working on a two-cohort model as well, with in-person days having six periods instead of the seven previously offered. She said it is the most complex school level for creating a hybrid schedule.
Rising Kent County High School senior Rachel Jones, attending her first meeting as the non-voting student board member, said she wants to be in the classroom this fall.
"I want as much time in school as I can get and I know that's how a lot of other students feel," Jones said.
Couch said while administrators are running into roadblocks in figuring out a schedule for the high school, they are committed to making it work with in-person classes.
"Just about every high school in the state at this point is promoting to go 100% virtual. So that was never our intent," Couch said. "We're going to work very hard to make sure that we can bring the students in. One way or the other — we want to bring our students in."
There was additional talk about buses, which would be run at lower seating capacities, maintaining health rooms and adding isolation areas, social distancing and mask requirements and more.
As part of the public participation portion of the meeting, Kent County Sheriff John F. Price, whose daughter is a teacher and whose deputies serve as the school resource officers, emailed concerns about ensuring daily health screenings of students and staff.
"Our community has limited the spread of COVID-19 by practicing appropriate behavior. We still have community spread in our county and I am requesting that you consider some form of daily screenings for all who enter our schools," Price wrote in an email to the board.
The presentation shows that student temperature checks are not required. Staff will self screen.
Tracey Williams, supervisor of student services and secondary education, questioned the validity of temperature checks for students. She said parents can ward off a high temperature through over-the-counter fever-reducers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
A key point for Couch in all of the planning is ensuring equity.
She said there was a big push for having all kindergarten through eighth grade in schools every day. She said the system would have to double the size of its staff and there are additional issues of space for classes and student transportation — all presenting an insurmountable challenge to making a full return to the classroom.
As presented, the school system will seek to accommodate those families who want their children's classes to be fully remote.
Couch said administrators are trying to determine how many teachers the school system could dedicate full-time to distance learning.
"This is not a Kent County problem. This is a problem all across the state," she said.
Couch also discussed efforts to reach those students who have limited or no internet access. She said principals have a list of students who had issues with access this spring and they would likely be given the opportunity to attend class five days a week.
"We don't want them to get further behind because they don't have internet access," Couch said.
Board members asked about improving digital learning from what was offered in the spring. Administrators were upbeat about improvements being made and best practices being shared.
There also were questions about ensuring students' social and emotional well being. Support services will continue to be provided by the school system, including a crisis team that will be available.
Athletics and other extracurricular activities at the high school remain a question mark. Fall sports may shift to another time of year and seasons may be shortened for other sports.
Board member Wendy Costa urged administrators to consider an offer made by Wayne Gilchrest, director of the Sassafras Environmental Education Center at Turner's Creek, in a letter to board members. Gilchrest offered space at the center for schools to use.
Costa suggested the school system take Gilchrest up on his offer and reach out to other similar programs like Echo Hill Outdoor School and the Sultana Education Foundation.
One possible issue with the idea is school nurses would have to be onsite.
Board Vice President Trish McGee, who also is associate editor of the Kent County News, and Costa raised concerns about how parents will be able to balance their work schedules with the hybrid school schedule.
"When COVID first hit, it was almost easier for parents when their kids were sent home because a lot of parents were too. But the reality is that most workplaces have opened up again so that parents can go back," McGee said.
Rock Hall Elementary School Principal Kris Hemstetter said families are going to have to make such decisions. She said administrators will look at individual circumstances, as the school system always has, and there may be other options that can be provided those families.
Williams said it is going to be very important for parents to communicate with the school system.
McGee said she appreciated all the hard work that went into the planning, as well as the efforts to improve upon the digital learning offerings last spring. She said equity is a huge part of planning for the fall and she needs to know that every student will have an equal opportunity to access education.
"There are a lot of challenging and different circumstances for our students and we can't be everything to every kid. But we should try to be as much as we can to every kid," McGee said.
To view the slides for the July 13 presentation, click through the meeting agenda posted at go.boarddocs.com/mabe/kcps/Board.nsf/Public.