DENTON — The Caroline County Board of Education has decided to open school in the fall via distance learning. Grappling with how to reopen schools safely since COVID-19, the board met on July 21 to discuss what is best for the Caroline County educational community, and unanimously voted to accept distance learning for all students, presented in June in the Preliminary Recovery Plan as Plan A.

The decision includes a phased-in approach that safely brings in specific populations and grades of students as CCPS is able to move through Plans B, C, and D of the recovery plan.

Plan A is distance learning at home only. Plan B is blended with staggered schedules and in-school learning supplemented by distance learning. Plan C is normal with modifications for special populations. Plan D has all students in school.

Superintendent Patty Saelens made the recommendation based on the work of the CCPS Recovery Plan, Stakeholder Group and in consultation with Roger Harrell, interim health officer for Caroline County. The decision was influenced by the recent family and employee surveys and regular communication with school superintendents throughout Maryland.

State Superintendent Karen Salmon and Gov. Larry Hogan left the decision in the hands of local jurisdictions.

“Every county is different. The state shouldn’t be making the decision. We want to work with the health department to figure out what phase we are in,” said Tolbert Rowe, school board vice president.

Through the survey conducted by CCPS, 59% of parents said they wanted their child to return to school, 68% said they would send their child to school by bus, and 59% of parents said they had a laptop for the child to use.

Saelens stressed that virtual learning will be vastly different than the Continuity of Learning conducted by all Maryland schools this past spring and will include direct instruction and grading of student work.

“Everything will be graded. They can use Google Classroom to pull down lessons, which they are already familiar with,” Saelens said.

According to the plan, fine arts, physical education and health education teachers will be included to teach their respective content. These classes will be offered as a rotation to provide the necessary content and support to students for a well-rounded curriculum while also helping to reduce the student-teacher ratios to 10 or fewer in each learning environment.

As the phased-in return to school happens, a rotational model is in play where for four days each week, 25% of the students in a school would report to school on their specified day. This model would apply at all levels (elementary, middle and high) for those four days. Students will be provided assignments to support their learning on the days when they do not report to school that could include paper, pencil, distance learning opportunities, or a combination.

Special Education, English for Speakers of Other Languages and resource teachers will collaborate with classroom teachers to schedule and provide required services to students. Rotated pull-out classes may also reduce the student-teacher ratios to 10 or fewer.

The board also discussed social distancing options and how to encourage stakeholder participation. As directed by the state, local school systems must establish a reopening stakeholder group to assist in the development of the school system’s reopening plan. The group must include parents, teachers, students, educators and community members to encompass each system’s unique student population and needs.

According to the local Recovery Plan, CCPS will implement a protocol to immediately separate staff and children with COVID-19 symptoms (such as fever, cough or shortness of breath) at school. Individuals who are sick should go home or to a health care facility depending on how severe their symptoms are, and follow CDC guidance for caring for oneself and others who are sick.

Additionally, seating/desks will be spaced at least 6 feet apart when feasible, and desks turned to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other), or students sit on only one side of tables, spaced apart.

For close communal use shared spaces, such as dining halls and playgrounds with shared playground equipment, clean if possible; otherwise, stagger use and clean and disinfect between use, the plan states.

The topic of safely transporting students was also discussed. The plan specified the need to create distance between children on school buses, seating one child per row and skipping rows when possible.

School bus drivers will need to attend in-service trainings before transporting students to learn about new policies and procedures, as well as understand how to effectively clean their bus. There is a high level of concern that these drivers and attendants (many of which are in the high risk category for COVID-19) will be unwilling to put themselves at-risk unless there is widespread testing or vaccine for drivers and children. School systems should be prepared to provide all bus drivers protective equipment that should include masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, a forehead thermometer and wipes, according to the plan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published guidance that recommends that on school buses, a child sits one to a seat and by alternating the rows in which students sit. For a 77-passenger bus, this would allow for approximately 13 students to be transported.

The issue of athletics came up as well. LSS athletics programs and stakeholders must embrace the notion that the safe return of interscholastic athletics will need to be administered on an incremental basis, using the latest national, state, and local health recommendations and operational procedures, according to the Recovery Plan.

Key areas and details of the reopening plan continue to be developed and will be shared as they are finalized. The complete plan will be presented at the Aug. 4 board meeting and submitted as required to the Maryland State Department of Education by Aug. 14, Saelens said.

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