Jill Morris, president of St. Mary’s Education Association, teared up Wednesday morning as she read one of the 25 comments from educators concerned about staff and children returning to schools later this summer as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
A Mechanicsville Elementary teacher’s note stated she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the past and the on-going complications make her uncomfortable to work in the school building.
“I can’t retire so I face risking my life to teach these students. I love my students but I love my life more,” Morris read at the podium.
Superintendent Scott Smith made clear during Wednesday’s school board meeting a reopening plan for St. Mary’s public schools would not be decided that day. Conversations are ongoing and a virtual town hall is scheduled for July 29 at 4 p.m. to talk more about the online platform Schoology.
It was also stated, more than once, the governor and state superintendent give the go-ahead when schools can officially reopen. The two were scheduled to make an announcement later that day.
However, Smith said later, “We’re going to have to go completely virtual to start.”
Maryland’s education department requires all plans from local districts to be ready and posted by Aug. 14.
Smith said the recommendation is to phase into a hybrid model, which would involve sending students back two days a week and alternating groups of students. The phase-in process would start with a specific group of students, like those in special education or without internet, then those in transition grades, kindergarten, sixth and ninth, then everyone else.
Board member Rita Weaver suggested seniors be included in the transition cohort, and Smith agreed. She also suggest special education students have in-person instruction for four days a week instead of two.
After schools were closed in mid March due to the coronavirus pandemic, staff had access to the coronavirus relief leave that gave them 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds pay if they needed to take care of children, Smith said. He added that staff could have the ADA modify their workspace if they are eligible.
For staff who do not qualify for those categories, “They have to return to the worksite.” He added they will review that direction again if they officially decide to go virtual.
“For all those who took the time to write letters for public comment, we absolutely hear you,” but they have a responsibility to teach 18,000 students, he said. And the best way he can ensure high-speed internet for staff is to have them work at school sites.
Jeff Walker, assistant superintendent for supporting services, said there are 4,700 laptops for secondary students and 500 devices for elementary students that will be ready by Aug. 15, more than two weeks before the start of school. He added 2,500 laptops are ready for distribution now and they expect to get more in September.
Walker said they will “be able to quickly distribute the devices” once ready.
Those numbers fall way short of the public school system’s 18,000 students, though. Calvert and Charles counties school system said they will provide laptops for all students. St. Mary’s said they are still working to provide a laptop for everyone.
Dr. Meena Brewster, county health officer, was virtually present at the Wednesday school board meeting to explain what COVID-19 in the schools might look like. If a person is positive with the virus and shows symptoms, that person must isolate for 10 days. They would need three days without having a fever or worsening symptoms before exiting isolation. Those who show no symptoms but are positive must do the same.
For those who are waiting on test results with symptoms, or who have close contact with someone who tested positive, they must quarantine for 14 days.
Those parameters could lead to many days absent for many students.