CENTREVILLE — Tension was high and emotions apparent during the nearly six-hour long meeting of the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education Oct. 7.
A passioned plea by board member Capt. Bev Kelley to begin school Oct. 26 at a 50 percent capacity fell flat after much discussion and concerns from Superintendent Andrea Kane, who said staff needed until Nov. 2 to prepare for transportation needs.
Ultimately, the board agreed to the 50 percent capacity on Nov. 9, as long as health metrics are met.
At the time of the meeting the countywide 7-day positivity rate was 2.6%, well below the state mandated 5% to return at the 50% capacity. Other local districts, including Talbot and Caroline, have already resumed in-person teaching for a majority of students.
With a hybrid day schedule, students will be divided into two cohorts. Half will participate in classes in school on Mondays and Tuesdays with virtual learning on Thursdays and Fridays, with the reverse for the second cohort of students. Wednesdays will be reserved for independent completion of assignments.
Parents and teachers are still responding to surveys if they will be returning to the physical school building when the 50% reopen plan takes effect, Kane said. A survey sent to parents ahead of the Oct. 7 meeting asked if they would send their student(s) back to school when the option became available and if they were willing to provide transportation for the duration of the modified school plan.
Teachers were also asked similar questions. Some staff have indicated medical reasons why they may not return, shared Kane, who indicated staff may, as a contingency, teach remotely and not in-person.
Board members also heard from parents and students at the meeting.
An emotional Nikki Morris of Stevensville, accompanied by her daughter, who is a sophomore at Kent Island High, said “I feel like we don’t have a voice as parents. This is serious. These kids need back to school.”
Morris was just one parent who voiced concerns over inadequate internet.
“Atlantic Broadband does not work for us,” she said, “(I am) begging you to get kids back in school, not just halfway. We can’t keep living out of fear.”
Jed Cohen, a seventh-grader from Centreville, voiced his concerns about lack of reliable internet.
“I cannot do much from my house. I think we should go back to school because that would mean no more Google Meets. I am definitely an advocate for going back,” he said.
A very frustrated Chris Blanton of Church Hill told the board he had spoken to them last month and received no reply to his concerns. There has been no response to how the school board could help struggling families, he said.
“Taxpaying voters want their kids to learn so they can flourish and not be left behind,” he continued, ”It must be nice to sit an ivory tower and look at the peasants as they struggle to assist their kids with an education while they try to make ends meet. I guess if I made $170,000 off the taxpayers money I could afford to get extra schooling, but unfortunately I and thousands of other parents cannot.”
In discussing the QACPS recovery plan, transportation is a real concern, according to Kane. She said the school system would follow recommended guidelines of one student per seat, staggered with cleaning and disinfecting between Tier 1 and 2 runs, at the responsibility of the driver, and loading back to front and unloading front to back.
Additional topics of discussion included whether parents could submit health screening information for their students and issues of maintaining properly sanitized conditions in schools.
Parents may still exercise the option to keep their students at home, which may work for those caregivers who might struggle to adapt to the 1 p.m. dismissal time for elementary and noon dismissal for middle and high school.
Other pieces of the Reopening Plan include: no outside visitor access, except for immediate student needs; 50% capacity, defined as 10-15 students per classroom; decluttering of classrooms; no shared supplies/equipment; and the provision of isolation spaces and physical barriers.
Chromebooks have been purchased for first- through fourth-grade students with an estimated delivery date of late December 2020 and a priority of getting them out to first- and second-grade students when they arrive. Flash drives were also purchased to allow for schools to be able to provide access to materials that can be accessed on a Chromebook that doesn’t have internet access. And webcams for classroom teachers were also purchased.
These purchases along with cleaning supplies and disinfectants were able to be made with money from the CARES Act funding and is dispensed under operations — Kane’s purview and not a category typically supervised by the board.
A heated discussion ensued after it was requested the board be made aware of those purchases and amounts.
Kane acknowledged many students have difficulty with reliable internet and have trouble hearing their teachers or have been cut off while trying to participate. It is a choice whether you log-in and choose not to engage, she said.
“Nowhere have we ever said that we are doing pass/fail this school year. I would suggest that parents follow up with their children and make sure that they turn their work in,” Kane said.
She reiterated that is different than those students who are trying to engage but have connectivity issues.
Board member Michele Morrissette said her own freshman has been up until midnight completing assignments — and that’s not manageable. She is hopeful that will change with some face-to-face instruction and a balance of assignments.
“There are challenges and there will be a learning curve,” said John Schrecongost, principal at Kent Island High School and Reopening Plan team member. “Our students and teachers will persevere and take advantage of that face-to-face time.”
Even so, “All of this is contingent on health metrics,” Kane said.