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 Dr. 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. As part of the Reopening Plan athletics will resume training and conditioning on Oct. 19.
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 an AA/BB day schedule, students will be divided into two groups or cohorts, with half participating in classes in school on two AA days (Mondays and Tuesdays) and participating in virtual learning on Thursdays and Fridays, with the reverse for BB day 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, said Kane. A survey sent to parents ahead of the Oct. 7 meeting asked if parents 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.
Transportation is a real concern, according to Kane, who explained 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. One way to help transportation meet these guidelines is to keep family units on the same bus, those students can sit together and help fill the bus to 50% capacity. However, one caveat to filling the bus to 50% was the health department’s recommendation to have temperatures taken before loading onto the bus. Kane said there isn’t staff to put on those buses to take temperature scans, and that temperature scans taken outdoors are not completely accurate.
Kelley countered that county medical director Dr. Joseph Ciatola said a statement signed by parents could attest to COVID symptom check and temperature screening. But Carla Pullen, facilities planner and interim chief operating officer, said her team was reluctant to do so and would defer to the recommendations by the Department of Health.
Pullen, alongside Maria Lagares-Fellers, school health services coordinator, is acting project manager for the Facilities and Operations team that helped develop the reopening plan. At 10% capacity now, they are constantly ordering and re-ordering cleaning supplies, Pullen noted, and continuing to insure supplies remain available and used appropriately will be an ongoing concern. However, Kelley confirmed said supplies are sufficient enough now to accommodate a 50% return.
Grab-and-go breakfast and lunch will continue to be provided in closed containers, as they have been since this past March, said Pullen, and masks will be required except when eating in all QACPS buildings unless prevented by an approved health reason.
“If you are able to and do not wear the mask that will be considered a disciplinary infraction,” Kane said.
Guidance will be issued on the proper use of PPE and finding out what may be preventing a student from wearing their mask, said Lagares-Fellers.
And new processes have been developed to assist teachers in identifying a student that may be displaying COVID like or non-COVID like symptoms
There are also multiple plans being put in place to ensure nurses have properly fitted N-95 masks and locked and easily transported medical carts should health staff need to “pivot” and leave their isolation space for cleaning or to respond to an ill or injured student, Lagares-Fellers said.
Still, School Board President Tamera Harper said there are concerns the cleaning practices in place even now at 10% are not being followed, citing concerns she had received including the cleaning of bathroom door handles. Pullen said it was understandable those concerns were being reported and they were working to address them.
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.
Student athletes will move to a return to play with a reengagement of conditioning and practice. “Our goal is to get kids on the field as soon as safely possible with large teams broken into smaller groups,” said Queen Anne’s County High Athletic Director Dave Wagner.
Kent Island High Athletic Director Dan Harding promised, “We will clean and disinfect as much as required and probably more.”
The winter sports season is scheduled to start Feb.1, but Harding said that could be moved up to Dec. 7. To adjust to the delayed and shortened playing seasons — a plan devised to allow fall, winter, and spring sports to play — there is a tentative plan to work 3-4 weeks of training for each season.
“We will exhaust every opportunity to keep our athletes engaged,” Harding said.
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.
Additional recommendations also include: installing an outdoor wireless access point at all schools; continuing the use of MiFi personal mobile hotspots for the remainder of the year for student use at home without internet access; setting up all preK-12 students with a Google account; and providing professional development to instructional specialists to support distance learning among several other recommendations.
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 very heated discussion ensued after it was requested the board be made aware of those purchases and amounts.
There is hope the Reopening Plan will help students who have struggled with the virtual learning platform. (There has) definitely been a decrease in grades (for some students), said Kane, when parents and kids are saying their grades are lower that is true ... maybe not significantly lower but still lower than pre-COVID.
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, said Kane.
“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.