A survey showed most parents of St. Mary’s public school students have some level of comfort returning kids to school later this summer. St. Mary’s superintendent explained Wednesday what that could look like when that phase comes.
A virtual town hall highlighted what the school system has done so far, what it is doing now and what returning to school, after the novel coronavirus forced schools to close its doors for the last three months of the last school year, might look like.
The school system sought input from community members on their comfort level of sending students back to school. After nearly 4,000 responses, it was close to an even four-way split: 25.6% are very comfortable, 24.4% are mostly comfortable, 24% are a little comfortable and 23.7% are not at all comfortable.
Superintendent Scott Smith told the public through a livestream that school leaders had only two weeks to put together a plan after the state closed the public schools in the middle of March.
“We did the best we could with the tools on the shelf,” he said.
Those tools were the online platforms Edgenuity and Imagine Learning. Not ideal, Smith said, but the best they could provide. He said 90% of students accessed the platforms and of that 90%, about 94% completed their assigned coursework. But that does not mean 90% of the county’s public school students have access to sufficient internet.
The school system is rolling out its recently purchased platform, Schoology, for next school year, which was originally going to be available to everyone in 2022 after a year of training.
“It is like Google Classroom on steroids,” Smith said, adding that it can be used for in-person and virtual instruction.
The state published a 70-page recovery plan that required each local school system to post a plan by Aug. 14. It also lists three steps to reopen the schools.
The first depends on what reopening stage the state is in. Maryland is in stage two, which allows for some in-person activities. Stage three is when schools can get back to normal, Smith said.
Step two of the recovery plan requires school systems to submit a plan for communication, incorporate equity, establish stakeholder groups, identify learning gaps, maintain college and career readiness, address IDEA, Section 504 and ADA, follow health guidelines, ensure safe transportation, track attendance, develop a COVID-19 checklist and adhere to the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association road map.
“If we satisfy all those things, local schools can talk about students and staff reentering the building,” Smith said about step three, adding that school systems can decide to be more strict than the recovery plan guidelines.
A return to school planning committee was developed and it includes working groups and subgroups of staff, students, parents and stakeholders.
The superintendent noted figuring out a transportation plan is a significant factor in returning to schools.
“If we are to follow social distancing, and PPE on school buses, we can only put eight to 12 kids on a bus,” he said, adding that putting one child in each seat allows only 22 kids on the bus. “Please know up front, we run our buses with 50 to 60 kids.”
There are stages in reopening the state, steps in reopening schools and, now, the school system developed pillars for staff returning to work. The first pillar addresses teaching and learning, the second pillar looks at services for students, pillar three views supporting services and the fourth and last pillar addresses organization and system support.
“For us to deliver equitable instruction, we have to get to one-to-one,” he said about giving every student a laptop.
The superintendent acknowledged the help received from the state attorney’s office and county commissioners, but they are still “millions of dollars short.”
Deb Rey, organizer of the group Reopen St. Mary’s and a former one-term Republican delegate, said she would like to see the schools go back to normal.
“Trying to get kids to social distance, there’s a lot of psychological issues there,” she said, adding that telling kids to stand away from their friends gives teachers and administrators another thing to worry about.
She said the data shows kids are not really impacted from the virus.
“I understand the health department are totally focused there, but we need to look at the bigger picture,” she said.
St. Mary’s health department reports 39 people, of the 615 positive cases, age 19 and younger tested positive for the coronavirus in the county.
Rey said she was pleased to learn the virtual town hall was happening because Reopen St. Mary’s requested the school board and commissioners hold a joint meeting about opening the schools. She said she received a quick response from Karin Bailey, chair of the school board, who told her the school system has done a series of town halls last school year.
Bailey told The Enterprise Rey’s request was a coincidence and the school system was already planning a town hall.
The former delegate said she urged members in her group to spread the word about the livestream.
School officials said over 600 people were tuned in and they received 70 questions. Not all the questions were addressed, but Maureen Montgomery, the deputy superintendent, said an FAQ page will be developed on the school system’s website.
About 18,000 students attend St. Mary’s public schools, which employ more than 2,000 people.