By a 5-2 vote with board members Tajala Battle-Lockhart and Michael Lukas dissenting, the Charles County school board approved a plan to begin bringing back students to school buildings on Nov. 9.
The vote, which took place during the board’s monthly meeting on Oct. 13, followed a lengthy discussion.
Linda McLaughlin, president of the Education Association of Charles County, said survey results showed that staff were evenly split on whether they were comfortable returning to the classroom. About one-third of the EACC membership responded to the survey, she said.
Phase 2 of the district’s reopening plan allows the following students to return to school four days a week: all special education students, English language learners, those with a disability (504 plan) or no internet access, students who are homeless or displaced, children of school district employees and Career Technical Education juniors and seniors.
Those who choose to return to in-person education will have a fifth day of virtual learning each week that is recorded. Others can continue learning 100% online.
Superintendent Kimberly A. Hill said 7,256 students — or 26.9% of the population — were eligible to return to classrooms in Phase 2, with 44.3% saying they would, 44.7% saying they would remain 100% virtual, and no responses from 11%.
Hill said 40% of special education students have chosen to return to in-person learning.
The plan requires teachers to return to their classrooms on Nov. 2, but they can request special accommodations, such as teleworking, Hill said. So far, 370 staff — including 270 teachers — have applied, with 67 approved and 33 denied and the rest pending. A staffer said there are 2,150 teachers in the district and 265 administrators. Hill said the school district is going above and beyond what most systems in the state are doing to accommodate teachers. Many districts require teachers to go into the classroom unless they can use the federal Family and Medical Leave Act or resign, she said.
Deputy superintendent Amy Hollstein said the district purchased 2,200 web cameras for teachers’ workspaces. These can be used when a teacher is instructing an in-person class and a virtual one at the same time, for example.
Dr. Dianna E. Abney, Charles County health officer, supported the plan to return to school. “I’ve looked at the plan. It looks very good to me,” she said.
Board member David Hancock said Abney’s recommendation “carries a lot of weight.” He later said, “We’re below the state average for people who test positive.”
As of Wednesday, according to the Maryland health officials, 2,962 Charles residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 99 county residents have died from the disease.
Hill said she plans to “work into additional phases [of the 5-phase plan] as health conditions” allow.
Board chair Virginia McGraw asked if the board should give Hill the authority to decide when to enter additional phases, noting that Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s education boards have done so. However, the Charles County school board decided to wait until its Nov. 10 meeting to decide that issue.
In objection to implementation of Phase 2, Lukas said most of the COVID-19 cases “are concentrated in Waldorf. There’s been no leveling off in those ZIP codes,” he said.
An amendment offered by board member Jennifer Abell to require district staff to notify a school community if anyone at the school tests positive for the coronavirus was unanimously approved.
Michael Heim, assistant superintendent of school services, said that if someone at a school tests positive for the virus, it could result in all of the teachers at the school getting tested.
“Once tested, you’re required to quarantine until you get results,” he said, noting that could result in the school being closed for a while, although teachers may still be able to teach virtually. “It’s standard practice for the business world,” Abell said.
Residents rally for return
A “back to school” rally was held outside the school district’s administration building during the Oct. 13 meeting. Robin Sprague, who has a child in eighth grade, said her Comcast internet service in La Plata “is horrible,” noting “the internet went out today.”
Jessica Calomeris, who has a second-grader and a fourth-grader, also lives in La Plata. Calomeris said her Verizon Fios service is fine, but she often gets kicked off the school district’s server.