“Nobody ever imagined that such an event would turn our world upside down for such a long period of time.”
With those words, Calvert public schools’ Superintendent Daniel D. Curry may have summed up the situation that students, teachers and staff faced in 2020.
“School has a rhythm and predictability that families and communities rely on,” Curry said in a recent email. “We have learned to be flexible and to persevere. Everyone — staff, students and families — learned new tools that will still be useful when this is over.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic caused us to rethink everything we do,” Charles public schools’ Superintendent Kim Hill said. “It forced us to shift to new ways of delivering instruction, mental health services and meals for the children we serve. It also highlighted the inequities that exist in our community.”
Internet access problems exposed
Internet access, or the lack thereof, became a hot topic in the region after students were required to learn remotely when schools were abruptly closed in mid-March.
Internet hot spots and laptops were disbursed to some families in the tri-county region and internet cafes were open at schools in Calvert and Charles counties, something St. Mary’s school system opted not to do.
“Every family in Charles County should have access to reliable internet connectivity, and the fact that many areas of our county are underserved is unacceptable,” Hill said.
She noted that the pandemic also exacerbated the income gap that exists in the community.
Charles public schools’ “staff has done whatever it takes to support families in need and will continue to do so with clothing, food, technology, gifts and monetary donations,” Hill said.
“I’m proud of the [Charles public school system] team for what they’ve accomplished in the last nine months,” she said. “Teaching and learning have changed forever, and I look forward to incorporating the new strategies we’ve learned as we resume in-person instruction.”
Some students have done well in the virtual environment, but others clearly have not.
“Everyone’s having a different experience with online learning,” said Abby Setzfand, a senior at Northern High School and a student member of the Calvert school board. “I’ve had a great experience. Some students have an urgency to go back, others don’t.”
In June, area high schools had modified in-person graduations. St. Mary’s three public high schools had ceremonies inside the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center, while Charles’ seven high schools met outside each high school on a platform. Calvert’s four high schools met in small groups on their football fields.
“Some parents said it was a much more personal experience,” said Cathy Allen, St. Mary’s school board member. Each graduate in St. Mary’s got two guests who could view the proceedings, she said.
In Charles, “the feedback was that it was very successful given the circumstances,” school board chair Ginny McGraw said.
“They made it as special as possible,” Calvert school board member Dawn Balinski said. “I found that it was a lot of fun.”
Elections result in just one change on boards
School board elections were held in Calvert and St. Mary’s on Nov. 3, and although no new board members were elected in St. Mary’s, Calvert saw Antoine White elected to fill the vacant seat that was open due to Tracy McGuire being term-limited.
White’s election in District 2 will create a minority majority school board when he is seated in January since he, school board President Inez Claggett and Vice President Pam Cousins are all Black. Calvert’s Black population, according to the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data, is 13.3%.
White was elected over Dawn Keen, who suspended her campaign following controversial Facebook posts in the summer. Two write-in candidates emerged to challenge White and Claggett, but they only got 3.4% and 3.8% of the vote.
In other races, incumbent Balinski defeated newcomer Chad Leo in Calvert’s District 1, while in St. Mary’s, incumbents Cathy Allen, Jim Davis and Mary Washington were all re-elected.
Increase in failing grades
All three school districts have reported disturbing news about an increase in the number of students’ F grades this fall, which is one reason some educators say students need to get back in school buildings.
In November, for example, St. Mary’s school Superintendent Scott Smith reported a 19% increase in failing grades for middle schoolers and 16% increase for high schoolers.
“Some [students] have never gotten Fs before,” Smith said. “We have a lot of work [to do].”
COVID-19 will affect schools going into the new year as well. Return-to-school plans sputtered earlier this school year as virus case numbers again began to rise around the region and state.
Although St. Mary’s plans to resume some in-person instruction in January, Smith said “it might take us until March to get back to some semblance of normalcy day-to-day.”
Calvert also has plans to begin bringing students back in-person in January, although Charles does not, aside from some internet cafes and learning centers.
McGraw said Hill will update the Charles school board on Jan. 12 about plans to begin bringing back special student populations.