Update from Dana Schallheim: Due to county COVID-19 case rates in excess of 15 new cases per day per 100,000, otherwise known as the “Red Zone,” the Board of Education reversed its previous decision to implement hybrid instruction for elementary school students. The hybrid model for elementary students will now be delayed until the start of second semester, pending COVID-19 metrics. Teachers were previously due to return to buildings on November 9. Again, due to unacceptable COVID-19 numbers, the teacher return date will be delayed.
It’s important to reiterate that all decisions the Board and Dr. George Arlotto have made to date are and will continue to be predicated on acceptable COVID-19 metrics as determined by both the governor and our county health officer, Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman.
Small groups of ESOL, special needs, and CAT-North students who were previously meeting in-person are likely to be halted temporarily, again due to our current COVID-19 case rate metrics. Once the case rate numbers fall below 15, Dr. Arlotto will work more aggressively than before to get students who need in-person instruction the most back into buildings.
The Board of Education, despite Dr. George Arlotto’s recommendation to continue school in an all-virtual environment for the rest of the semester, voted to move forward with a hybrid plan. This plan sends teachers back to school buildings on November 2, ECI and pre-K through second grade on November 16, and grades 3-5 on November 30 pending acceptable Anne Arundel County COVID-19 positivity and case rates.
Parents of elementary students were asked to choose between three options. Students could attend in-person lessons two days per week with the remainder of the week in the virtual environment, all virtual for the remainder of the semester with the option to choose to either remain virtual or move to the hybrid model for the second semester, or remain all virtual for the rest of the year.
While I have advocated for, and believe in choice, I remain concerned about the reopening plan for several reasons. Be aware that AACPS is still required by the Maryland State Department of Education to offer an average of 3.5 hours of synchronous learning per day whether that is in-person or virtual learning. This rule stifles our options and certainly our ability to retain consistency for our teachers and students.
First, I don’t believe the hybrid model, as written, focuses on the students who need to return to in-person instruction the most. Teachers and parents are aware of the students most in need of in-person instruction. This includes our students with specials needs, English language learners, or any student that hasn’t been engaged or has not engaged successfully with virtual learning regardless of grade level. I believe AACPS should focus its attention on returning these groups first to classrooms so healing can begin, and achievement gaps can start to close.
Instead, some teachers will be teaching two groups of students simultaneously – one group in the class and another online. I hope and I pray I will be proved wrong, however, I am not sure this model is fair to either group of students who will be struggling to engage from home or a 6-by-6-foot square in the classroom with a masked teacher. Of course, I believe everyone should be wearing a mask at times per the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, state and local guidelines. The issue I have is that it will be hard to read body language, impossible to read lips, and possibly muffled for both those in the classroom and those at home, especially when the teacher’s attention is split between the children in the classroom and those connecting virtually.
Secondly is the question of student placement. Under all three plans, it is possible that students will be moved from their existing teachers, classmates and potentially home school community, all of whom have formed relationships with the students. I realize that some shifting, under the existing plan, is inevitable due to student choices and teacher availability, however, the thought of students potentially losing their teachers, including cultural arts teachers students have known for years, is disheartening and could negatively affect our students.
Lastly, I have serious concerns about returning to the status quo in terms of school schedules once the hybrid model begins. Roughly 15 to 25 percent of a school’s total enrollment will be attending school in-person on any given day, including bus riders, walkers, bike riders and car riders. Even with COVID-19 bus capacity guidelines, far fewer buses will be needed to transport far fewer students to school every day. Why, then, are schools returning to pre-COVID-19 bell schedules, which include some elementary schools starting as late as 9:45am and dismissing at 4:10pm? Especially with the release of the transportation consultant report last March, purchased with taxpayer dollars, I’d hope that our transportation staff have been using these last many months, while most buses have been idle, to improve pupil transportation including tightening routes and making full use of existing software. There is no sense in returning our youngest students to school so late in the morning, a nightmare for working families in terms of morning child care, those looking for work, and our students who will be walking home from school or bus stops in the dark during winter months.
The details of how students will return to school are just as important to me as when they return, and I will not stop advocating for the safe return to classroom instruction, the preservation of existing teacher/student relationships, and healthy, safe and age-appropriate start times for all elementary students.