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A week of first days: schools bring 25 percent of students back in-person

CECIL COUNTY — “It seems like everything is going back to how it was,” junior Adam Townsend said in the hallway of Perryville High School.

Townsend was one of the thousands of students across the county who returned to schools this week for the first time since March, sitting at desks beside their classmates and seeing their teachers face-to-face.

Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) entered the second phase of reopening this week, encouraged by positive local health metrics. Each day, the district welcomed back over 3,000 students — 25 percent of the roughly two thirds who are ready to return to in-person learning. In this phase, every student who wants to return gets at least one day in-person per week.

For students like Jaimere Guy, another Perryville High junior, being in the building makes learning easier.

“It’s different for me,” he said. “I feel like in school I’m more focused.”

For others, it’s a reminder that school is about more than just learning.

“When you’re at home, you don’t have the social aspect,” Townsend said. “You don’t have the people you talk to after class. You’re kind of just sitting there.”

Schools around the district are following strict safety policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students and staff are required to wear face masks and maintain six feet of distance. Custodial staff roam the halls disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Cafeterias, media rooms and even some classroom desks are segmented with clear plastic sneeze guards.

Perryville High brought back about 115 students each day this week. Principal Theodore Boyer said that students are taking the safety guidelines seriously because they want to be back — they miss their friends, their teachers and the old routines of learning in school.

Kaylen Cloude, a fifth grader at Charlestown Elementary School, said that she is excited to be back in school because her brother distracts her at home.

“Virtual learning is not a good match for me,” she said. “It’s hard to learn how to do a bunch of stuff, to log on every day on the computer. I’ve been in school my whole life, and it’s too complicated.”

Her teacher, Rhonda Wagner, said that she could never have prepared for the abrupt shift to virtual learning last spring. She drove to each of her students’ homes delivering books, she said, just to check in and make sure they were safe.

Now, she couldn’t be more excited to have students back. Charlestown Elementary had between 60 and 70 students back each day this week.

“Teaching to a screen is not the same as having an interaction with kids,” she said. “That’s why I am a teacher. If I wanted to be a computer technician, I would have gone into that.”

Wagner said that in addition to minor technical glitches like web cameras cutting out, it’s hard to monitor students both online and in-person. Students feel more comfortable asking questions when they’re in the room with her, she said, and she sometimes isn’t sure if her students are listening and understanding her lessons.

“With virtual, people feel more insecure,” she said. “The kids are insecure. The parents are really insecure about what’s going on, and they’re nervous and they’re afraid their kids are falling behind.”

One remote student used the online learning platform’s ‘raise your hand’ function to get Wagner’s attention, and asked her what he should do after completing an assignment. Another remote student used the ‘raise your hand’ to ask if she could go to the bathroom.

“Yes, you may,” Wagner said.

Amid the new normal, some things never change — like asking permission to use the bathroom.

Students and teachers have adapted to new types of learning at a breakneck pace this year, but they are hoping the second phase of reopening is a step toward what they recognize.

Paula Kuenzle, a third grade teacher at Charlestown Elementary who has been teaching for nearly four decades, is anxious to get all of her students back face-to-face.

“This is year 38 for me, and it’s all new,” she said. “It’s like my first year all over again.”

For Emili Downing, an eighth grade English teacher at Perryville Middle School, balancing her virtual and in-person students can be a challenge.

“Sometimes I feel like I have it under control,” Downing said. “And then sometimes, it’s kind of like I’m a chicken with my head cut off.”

Perryville Middle School brought back almost 120 students each day this week. Each grade shares a lunch block in the cafeteria, so students can at least see their friends, even if they have to sit six feet apart.

Sixth grader Jack Edler said that talking with his friends in the cafeteria was one of his favorite parts of returning to school. He said that finishing fifth grade remotely wasn’t what he expected.

“Finishing up school at the end and seeing people — it was weird,” he said. “You knew who they were, but they sounded a lot different on the computer.”

While he has less homework these days, because he’s able to finish most of his work during class, Edler has had issues navigating the online learning platform. He said he often can’t access the video calls, or gets unexpectedly booted out, or simply can’t hear his classmates.

Seeing signs that things are returning to normal, Edler is excited.

“It’s much better not being virtual, because you’re more interactive with your teachers and other people,” he said. “You don’t have to just sit there all day.”

Perryville Middle School Principal Shawn Johnson said that as plans for reopening came together, he worried about a number of things which could go wrong. This week, however, has gone smoother than he expected — everyone is readily wearing masks, keeping their distance and sanitizing regularly.

Kids, he added, roll with the punches.

“I’m ecstatic to have kids in this building,” Johnson said. “The more students we see every day, the better I feel about what we’re doing. It feels more and more like school.”

For many teachers and students, the difference between in-person and virtual school can’t be overstated.

Janet Candy, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Perryville Middle School, said that she tries her best to make learning the same for her remote and face-to-face students. Still, she acknowledged that it’s different — students can ask questions more easily, and she can better gauge how well they understand the material.

Candy has a master’s degree in instructional technology and has studied how to put technology to use in the classroom. Building a personal relationship with each student, she said, is what keeps them interested.

“If the kids like you and find you engaging, they’re going to log in and work,” she said. “They’re going to try to do something every day, and if they feel comfortable with you, they’ll reach out and ask you questions.”

When she started teaching 15 years ago, she never expected to be teaching in the middle of a pandemic. But for Candy, it’s just another part of being a teacher.

“As a teacher, you always want to get better every year and every day,” she said. “If you get into teaching, you know that, and this is just another adaptation.”


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Discussions continue on proposed special taxing district

ELKTON — The Mayor and Commissioners of the Town of Elkton met Wednesday to continue to discuss a proposed special taxing district relating to infrastructure for the Southfields Planned Use Development project.

According to Elkton Mayor Rob Alt, the purpose of the work session Wednesday was to continue to allow members to educate themselves about the proposed special taxing district. He said during the meeting that no action on the proposal would occur until November at the earliest, and possibly later.

The proposal, which includes two related resolutions, R8-2020 and R9-2020, would establish a special taxing district encompassing certain parcels of land connected to the Southfields project and would authorize the issuance of bonds for the purpose of funding public improvements for the district.

In previous meetings of the mayor and commissioners it has been discussed that the proposed district would not increase taxes for other residents of the Town of Elkton. Any taxes relating to the district would be the responsibility only of those in the proposed district.

At a prior meeting, Southfields PUD developer Ray Jackson of Stonewall Capital said that he was seeking the creation of the special taxing district to provide private financing for an infrastructure project which would include the creation of public roads, including the main boulevard for the Southfields project. The project would also include related infrastructure projects such as a proposed water tower and sewer pump stations for the development. In addition, the financing would include some traffic related improvements to Maryland 212 and U.S. Route 40.

During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners asked a variety of questions regarding the proposed development. One of the most significant of which was asked by Elkton Town Administrator Lewis George who noted that the entire proposal is based upon the premise that the project will be built. George wanted to know what the risk was, especially to the town if the project doesn’t get built. He noted that while there was a reference to market studies relating to the building of homes, he wasn’t seeing that many homes being built.

Emily Metzler, senior vice-president with MuniCap, LLC, the entity that is anticipated to be appointed administrator of the bond trust funds, said that whether or not the development is completed is not a risk factor for the town.

Metzler said that MuniCap is aware of the risk and as the project proceeds through the bonding process, Municap works to try to mitigate any risk. She said during the process several studies will be conducted and Municap will work to ensure that permits and financing is in place. She said an appraisal will be done on the property and an engineer will ensure that necessary approvals are in place and that the cost estimates are sound. She said a market study will be performed, but that MuniCap likes to have legislation in place before they proceed with relevant market studies.

Metzler also noted that whether the property is developed or not, the special tax will apply to the undeveloped property as well so taxes can be collected from both developed and undeveloped properties. This helps to incentivize the developer to go ahead and develop the property.

She also noted that the private bond holders who would ultimately be purchasing the bonds are familiar with the risks and the additional risk brings with it a slightly higher interest rate to compensate bondholders for the risk they would be taking in the project.

As a final note she said said that if the developer does not sufficiently develop the property there are fail-safe procedures in place including the ability of the bondholders/investors to take title to the land through a process similar to a tax sale. If that were to happen the investors could find a new developer to complete the project.

Attorney Kimberly Min with Whiteford, Taylro & Preston LLP in Baltimore, who has been working with the town on the project, said that the developer not completing the project is an unlikely result, but bondholders understand the risk when purchasing the bonds.

Municap President Keenan Rice said that bondholders are really looking at the property as security, that is why an appraisal of the property will be important to help determine the value and the risk involved. He also noted that it is extremely rare that a developer would not complete a project.

Also during the meeting, the potential tax rates were discussed for each property. Alt read the figures during the meeting as follows: $492 dollars per unit for residential structure, $832 per room for the hotel, mixed-retail property would be $812 per 1,000 square foot, office space would be $1,304 per 1,000 square feet. The indoor sports complex would be $969 per acre and the outdoor complex would be $305 per acre. For the proposed marina, the tax would be $1,772 per slip. These figures are per year figures over a 30-year period.

Metzler said a 2 percent tax increase per year had also been calculated into the total figure.

In response to a question regarding whether those figures were concrete, Metzler noted the figures are calculated the idea is that the total figure required to be financed could go down, but it would not go up without approval of the mayor and commissioners.


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Perryville Outreach Program wins grant to help with staffing

PERRYVILLE — A part time police officer/mentor, a full time activities coordinator and funding for program activities is how the Outreach Program will use a $69,152 grant it received from the Edward J. Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant.

Byrne was killed in the line of duty in 1988 while an officer with the New York City Police Department. He was trying to protect a witness in a case against drug dealers.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced last week that $3.4 million was coming to Maryland through the grant program and Perryville Outreach Program was one of its recipients.

Danielle Hemling, director of the program located on Elm Street, said most of the funding would address staffing gaps.

“This will allow us to hire a part-time police liaison-mentor to work 30 hours per week,” Hemling said. It would also cover the salary of part-time activities coordinator. A portion of the funds will also pay for computers and a trip to North Bay Adventure Camp for the members of the Outreach Program.

Robert Nitz, chief of the Perryville Police Department, was pleased with the grant award.

“She did an outstanding job on it,” Nitz said of Hemling’s work on the grant package.

The chief said that police liaison post will go a long way toward neighborhood engagement with his department.

“It will almost feel like an outreach to the community,” he said, calling it a “win-win-win.”

Hemling said the funds are being made available from the state and once the mayor and commissioners give the green light the plans can launch.


Had the railway been built, trolley cars like this one in New York might have been seen traveling between Elkton and Chesapeake City.

Railway


A year after the gantry went in, heralding the start of cashless tolling on the Hatem Bridge, the work to complete the transition begins Monday with removal of the remaining toll booths and paving.

Construction to start Monday on the Hatem Bridge


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Man charged in machete attack near North East

NORTH EAST — A man remained jailed Thursday after he allegedly attacked an acquaintance with a machete outside a convenience store near North East, according to Cecil County District Court records.

Maryland State Police Trooper Pepe started his investigation at approximately 12:35 p.m. on Wednesday, when he responded to the Royal Farms store in the 500 block of West Pulaski Highway (Route 40), near the Mechanics Valley Road intersection, after receiving a complaint regarding a man “possibly swinging a machete around” at someone, police reported.

Once there, the trooper noticed a Chevrolet Impala positioned behind a Honda sedan, blocking that Honda in a parking space, police said. Pepe detained 43-year-old North East resident James Michael Trolley, whom investigators identified as the suspect and as the owner of the blocking Impala, police added.

Trolley told the trooper that he had been in an argument with the 34-year-old man who owns the Honda, after Trolley admittedly had tracked down the Honda owner to the Royal Farms and waited for him to exit the store, according to charging documents. Trolley also told the trooper that the dispute stemmed “from missing money,” court records show.

The alleged victim told investigators that, after exiting the store and returning to his parking space, he discovered Trolley’s car blocking his vehicle, police reported.

Court records allege that two men, ages 24 and 42, then “witnessed Trolley brandish a machete, punch (the alleged victim) in the face and attempted to stab” him. The younger eyewitness “captured the whole incident” on video with his cell phone camera and later provided a copy of the footage to investigators, according to charging documents.

In addition, investigators confiscated a machete after finding it inside Trolley’s car, court records allege.

Trolley is facing five criminal charges, including first-degree assault — a felony that is punishable by up to 25 years in prison, if convicted, according to court records, which further indicate that Trolley is scheduled for a Nov. 13 preliminary hearing.

He remained in the Cecil County Detention Center without bond on Thursday night, after his bail review hearing earlier that day, court records show.


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