Charles public schools will continue their current status of 100% online instruction for students after Superintendent Kim Hill made the recommendation at a school board meeting earlier this week.
Although the school administration has “made it clear since July” they are ready to welcome students back to schools, the superintendent said, COVID-19 “data is not going in the direction we had hoped for, which isn’t completely unexpected.”
As cases increased after the winter holiday season, the positivity rate among Charles County residents reached 8.88%, or 40 people per 100,000 this week.
She mentioned from November to earlier this week, 123 staff members have tested positive for the virus but “almost every single staff case has been traced to activities outside of schools.” Hill emphasized “they have not seen community spread in school buildings at the same rate” it is seen in the community.
“Vaccines are hopefully our path back to normalcy,” she said, adding they are working on a structured plan on how they’ll be distributed throughout the school system. She claimed, per results of a recent survey, 70% of staff reported they would be willing to receive the vaccine.
Even when the vaccination period is complete, Hill said personal protective equipment, social distancing and all other public health guidelines will still be mandated in the schools “to be sure when folks come back to work” they return with every safeguard.
While reopening is on pause, the superintendent noted preparation for staff and students coming back to school is not. The school system continues to acquire personal protective equipment, including additional goggles, child-sized face masks and anti-fogging suggestions for face shields.
She said the school system has had almost 600 students in student learning centers since August and recently began busing 152 students without connectivity to the schools during online instruction.
“You made the comment that the number of cases in the school did not replicate what was in the general public,” Micheal Lukas, board member, said. “If there are 123 staff members who tested positive [at some point], how many are at the school on a regular basis right now?”
The number varies, Hill replied, as many staff members have chosen a 50% telework option, coming into the building half the time and working from home the other half.
“Many prefer to be in their classrooms and come in everyday. … I don’t have a firm number,” she said. Although some may have come to the school when they had the virus unknowingly, Hill noted with proper protocols they haven’t seen spreading within the building.
Lukas inquired about the number of children currently frequenting the building for learning centers, which provide access to technology as well as internet connectivity.
“So there are about 700 kids at the schools on a daily basis?” he asked, with Hill confirming.
“Pausing Phase 2 is the right decision at this point,” board member David Hancock said, claiming even though there have been a lot of emails from parents who want their kids back in school, “the reality is it’s not safe to do so right now.”
Another board member, Tajala Battle-Lockhart, said she’s heard concerns from parents regarding students in the special population or “Phase 2 population,” who are struggling without access to the services previously provided through the schools.
She suggested the board consider doing something for those students “who are willing to take the hit” that could occur from returning to the buildings.
Hill said the Phase 2 population is who they are concerned about and mentioned she’d like to send out an updated survey to look at how many of those parents want to send students back to school.
“The issue is staff will need to be back in schools,” she said, adding that “once vaccines” are complete, the expectation will be “it’s time to go back to work.”
At the February board meeting, Hill said she “fully intends” to bring reopen dates for small groups of students.
Wilson elected board chairperson
Earlier in the meeting, the board elected Latina Wilson as its chairperson and former chairperson Virginia McGraw as its vice chairperson.
In addressing her board colleagues, Wilson said she looks forward to continuing her service as a trustee to the community.
“Our schools are here to serve the educational needs of our students,” she said. “All of our stakeholders must be partners in this endeavor. I will continue to encourage good governance and collaboration. I know there are numerous challenges and tasks before us this year, such as a transition to a new superintendent and COVID recovery.”
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Wilson served as board vice chairperson for two terms, with McGraw serving as chairperson for the past four years.
McGraw said she is excited to continue in a leadership role with the board and continue her work in the best interests of students.
“The role of a board member is to advocate for the budget and the school system. … We will work toward the goals we have established to move our school system from good to great,” she said.