ELKTON — “What we’ve seen today is very encouraging,” Maryland Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon said in Elkton High School’s cafeteria on Monday. She visited Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) to observe the district’s hybrid reopening strategy in action.

“We’re seeing teachers being able to work not only with students here in their classrooms but also out there with their audiences synchronously at home,” Salmon said. “They just seem like that’s the way they’ve always taught.”

Starting last week, five percent of CCPS students — those most in need of in-person instruction — returned to schools, while the rest are logging in from home for virtual learning. CCPS Superintendent Jeffrey Lawson has considered plans to get 25 or even 50 percent of students back into classrooms as early as next month, a decision that will be guided by local health data as the pandemic progresses.

Salmon and State Board of Education President Clarence Crawford visited Elkton Middle School, Elkton High School, Gilpin Manor Elementary School and the Cecil County School of Technology. They chatted with administrators, teachers and students to learn more about the safety measures in place and the challenges of balancing remote and in-person learning.

At Elkton High School, they visited Laurie Gremminger, a special education teacher currently guiding students through The Diary of Anne Frank. Gremminger has a handful of students in her classroom, but a number were also following along from home.

Even with those students who were in the classroom, Gremminger is using a digital platform to conduct her lessons. She wants her students to be familiar with online learning in the event that a resurgence of COVID-19 cases forces them to return to a fully remote model.

“I want to keep them familiar with the online piece of it, even if I could do it face-to-face at this moment,” Gremminger said. “I want to at least get them in that routine.”

“That might really pay off in December,” Lawson said.

“I know,” Gremminger answered. “You just never know.”

Salmon and Governor Larry Hogan have encouraged schools to pursue hybrid reopening plans, encouraged by state-wide health metrics. Salmon will distribute a $10 million grant throughout the state later this week to support districts in bringing students back safely.

CCPS has provided devices and connectivity hotspots to accommodate virtual learning, but has also pursued strategies to maintain safety in school buildings.

Maintenance staff walk the halls spraying and wiping door handles with disinfectant. Students sit at desks spaced at least six feet apart, and plastic dividers section-off classroom and cafeteria tables. Teachers use an audio sync system called FrontRow, which ensures students, wherever they are, can hear the lesson clearly.

Salmon commended Lawson for the approach CCPS has taken, adding that she hopes school districts can help each other.

“I’m just hoping that Dr. Lawson can share a lot of these strategies with his fellow superintendents,” Salmon said. “If one system has had success with it, why not share it with someone else so they can have the same kind of success?”

She also applauded CCPS teachers, recognizing the challenge of balancing learning online and in person.

Colleen Gaughran, a first grade teacher at Gilpin Elementary School, has a class of seventeen students learning remotely, while managing a handful of fourth graders in-person. These students each worked with specialized paraprofessionals, but Gaughran still said it was a lot to focus on at once.

Her first graders had just finished a math lesson on double digits, and were at recess while Salmon visited. Up next — phonics. The length of the day is a challenge, she said, so she does her best to keep things interesting.

“I try to keep lessons to 20 minutes or less. Then they do something independently where they can get up and take a break,” Gaughran said. “They’re really into it. They’re really engaged.”

With each classroom visit, Lawson thanked the teachers for coming in and accommodating students both at home and right in front of them. He said he hopes the school community will buy into policy decisions that allow more students to return safely.

From what he’s seeing on the ground, he’s confident they will.

“In the classrooms that we’ve been in, these people are here for the right reasons, trying to do the right thing,” Lawson said.

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