Superintendent Kim Hill interrupted a first week of school presentation to ask school board members to make clear what the plans were for returning students to Charles County classrooms.
The county’s five-phase return plan did not have a scheduled timeline for returning students to the building. But members decided in Wednesday’s meeting to move to phase two, which returns a special population of students, at the start of the second quarter on Nov. 5.
The special population includes special education students, students who are homeless or displaced, some CTE students, children of school staff and students without internet.
Hill said during a previous meeting moving to the next phase would be dependent on the readiness of staff. However, Amy Hollstein, deputy superintendent, said in an interview it was the staff’s recommendation to move into the next phase in the second quarter.
“I implore the board to set a timeline for returning to school,” student member Ian Herd said during his update. He mentioned St. Mary’s public schools’ recent decision to begin returning students Sept. 21.
Hill later asked the board to discuss what rate the reopening phases should go and said moving straight to phase four, returning all students four days a week, was an option if they choose, as long as the county’s cases remain between five and 15 per 100,000 and the positivity rate is below 5%, she added.
She said Charles has eight cases per 100,000 and the positivity rate is 3.7% according to Maryland’s health department. If the positivity rate went up and stayed at 7%, Hill said, they would move back to a previous phase.
“Yes, our numbers look great. That’s because we’ve been still for a long time,” board member Tajala Battle-Lockhart said.
Board member Elizabeth Brown said she is not in favor of bringing students back before the end of the first quarter.
“I think we have a plan. I think we need to stick to it,” she said.
Virginia McGraw, chair of board, later echoed Brown’s position and noted the hard work teachers put in to learn the online platform.
“If you start the quarter, you finish the quarter,” Latina Wilson, vice chair of the board, said.
Board member Jennifer Abell said she’s all for moving to phase two in the second quarter.
About 9,000 students would be included in the special population, but board member Michael Lukas said he was interested in the number of students in each group, and how many would be in each school.
Hill said her staff wants to send a registration to parents of the special population to have a better idea of how many students will be in the buildings.
Students are not required to return to school. Abell said she was concerned staff did not have that option.
Some staff are exempt from working in the buildings due to health reasons, for example, but Hollstein said, depending on the case, they would be required to return in the second quarter.
“People think the only accommodations are teleworking,” she said, but ADA guidelines can allow adjustments be made inside the school building.
The board agreed to stick with Nov. 5 as a return date and to revisit the topic next board meeting.
School officials rehashed some of the challenges during the first week of school. The learning platform went down a couple of times and not all students were given devices.
A teary-eyed Charmaine Thompson, chief of IT, updated the board about additional laptops that were bought and a delayed shipment of devices caused by sanctions on China. She said she was told on Aug. 27 that a delivery would take one to two weeks.
“We’re going to make this right. We’re going to get this right,” she said.
She received a standing ovation from the board and school officials after explaining how her staff gave up their own devices to families, how she calls to check the delivery status every day and how she and her husband use their SUVs to deliver devices.