ROCK HALL — Students are headed back to the classroom Monday, Feb. 1 as Kent County Public Schools is returning to a hybrid instruction model.
Instruction in the school system has been virtual since December. High schoolers have been distance learning since the beginning of the school year.
The shift from virtual to hybrid instruction comes as Gov. Larry Hogan called on school systems to reopen their doors by March 1.
“There can no longer be any debate at all,” Hogan said during a Jan. 21 news conference. “It is abundantly clear that the toll of keeping students out of school far exceeds any potential risk of having students in school where they belong.”
Kent County Health Officer William Webb reiterated Hogan’s message to the Kent County Board of Education at a special meeting held Monday evening, Jan. 25.
Webb said if the board was to move forward with reopening schools, the risk to the community will likely increase. He said the big question is whether that risk exceeds the benefit of in-person education.
“The governor and the Maryland Department of Health have leveraged the expertise of the best minds in the country to assess this very question. Their answer is clear: Return our children to school. The mounting learning deficits of our children are quickly overshadowing any of the associated health risks with reopening,” Webb told board members.
Superintendent Karen Couch spoke about how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maryland Department of Health have revised guidelines and metrics for reopening schools.
Couch listed guidelines that are in place to ensure public safety: wearing masks, social distancing to the greatest extent possible, reinforcing hygiene standards, proper cleaning and disinfecting of areas and contact tracing and collaboration with the local health department.
“There is no question that online learning has taken its toll on our kids, especially the most vulnerable children in our schools. I think we all can agree that students learn best when they are in school and therefore the staff is preparing to return to hybrid instruction on Feb. 1, which is the beginning of the second semester,” Couch said.
When school started in September, classes were virtual. Students began to move into a hybrid learning model — alternating in-class instruction and distance learning days — in October. The plan for high school students was to remain virtual through Jan. 28, the end of the first semester.
In December, the school system returned to virtual learning as health metrics previously used to guide administrators — a county’s COVID-19 positivity rate and the number of positive cases per 100,000 people — were high.
Distance learning has remained in place since then.
In speaking to the board Jan. 25, Couch thanked the KCPS staff for all their hard work in preparing to reopen schools.
“They are working very hard. Our teachers, our principals, school personnel, district administrators, they’ve done an exceptional job keeping our schools safe and ensuring our students are well cared for, educated and fed. The Board of Education owes each one of our staff members a debt of gratitude,” Couch said.
In an interview Jan. 25, prior to the board meeting, Kent County High School Principal Dale Kevin Brown outlined the plans for reopening. He said with high school students having moved this year from a seven-period day to four periods, scheduling was no challenge.
While there are multiple hybrid instruction models employed by the school system, they generally break students up into cohorts. On days that one group is receiving in-person instruction, the other students are distance learning. Then the cohorts switch.
At the high school, students in cohort A will be in class on Mondays and Tuesday, while cohort B will be at the school on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fridays are virtual for everyone.
Numbers presented at the board meeting by Vice Principal Mark Buckel show out of 581 high school students, 259 have asked to return to class for hybrid instruction, while 110 requested to continue with fully remote learning. The plan for the remaining students — the 212 who did not respond to the survey — is for them to continue with virtual instruction.
Brown said during the interview that there will be about 130 students in the building on any given day, with most classrooms having just seven or eight children at desks. He said students will change classrooms each period. He said foot traffic patterns are laid out in hallways and faculty and staff will be monitoring students as they change classes.
Kent County Middle School Principal Mary Helen Spiri told board members that 202 students will be returning for hybrid instruction at Kent County Middle School. She said that is about 65% of the student population.
Due to the size of the building and classrooms, middle schoolers will not be broken up into cohorts. All who sign up for in-person instruction will be at the school Monday through Thursday. The learning pod sizes will reportedly range from 14 to 20 students.
H.H. Garnet Elementary School Principal Brenda Rose presented numbers for all three elementary schools at the board meeting.
At Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown, 197 students are returning for hybrid instruction, while 157 are staying fully remote. Those going hybrid will be divided into two cohorts with the exception of first-graders, who will be in the classroom four days a week.
Rock Hall Elementary School will see 121 students in the classrooms and 86 continuing with distance learning. Pre-kindergarten is the only grade with four days of in-person instruction being offered.
Galena Elementary School is expecting 154 students back in the classroom, while 78 will continue to be remote. First through fourth grades are being offered four days a week, while those students also were given the option of two days of classroom instruction. Pre-K, kindergarten and fifth grade are two days of in-person instruction under the hybrid model.
Rose talked to board members about public health measures in place at the elementary schools. She said students have done well with wearing their masks and health department officials have been through the buildings to check student spacing in classrooms.
One issue of concern for Rose was having all students enter and exit the building through the same doors. She said students will have designated doors based on grade level.
While board members supported the return to classrooms, they raised concerns about aspects of the reopening plans.
Vice President Trish McGee, who also is associate editor of the Kent County News, felt it was a big assumption on the part of high school administrators that all those students who did not respond to the survey about whether they wanted to return to the classroom would be happy with remaining remote.
McGee and President Joe Goetz — whose wife is a high school teacher and their son a student there — questioned what would happen Feb. 1 if some of those who did not respond to the survey showed up.
“I have a real problem with a kid who wants to go to public school and can’t go,” McGee said.
Buckel said school counselors are contacting students and families. He said if students not on the list for in-person instruction show up Feb. 1, they will not be turned away. He said administrators will work to accommodate students.
“Any students that come in will get housed in the auditorium and then we will work to get them in class as quickly as possible,” Buckel told board members.
Board member Wendy Costa questioned why select grades in some buildings were able to offer in-person instruction four days a week.
Rose said for the elementary schools, the number of in-person instruction days available were based on classroom space, student counts and staffing.
Board member Nivek Johnson advocated for a town hall allowing parents to ask questions and get more information.
“Communication is key, especially at this time,” Johnson said.
Board member Francoise Sullivan agreed on the need for clear communication with families.
“We are a family that elected to stay fully remote,” Sullivan said. “I hope everything that is being done is all that can be done. I am very concerned about safety for all of us, students, teachers and the community.”