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Planning for Continuity of Learning

March 20th, 2020

The following message was sent to the HCPSS community by Superintendent Michael Martirano on March 20, 2020:

As we wrap up the first week of this unprecedented closure, I hope you have been able to tend to your physical and mental health and focus on the important connections we need during a time like this. I have encouraged our staff to take this time as well, however, the work of the school system has not shut down during this closure. I want to focus today on current efforts to continue instruction from home and share some details with you on what’s ahead.

At the time of this message, we are still scheduled to return to school on March 30. While I have not received any indication of what the statewide decision may be for further closures, I want you to know that we are preparing for continuity of learning under the safe assumption that closures will likely go beyond the current two week period. It is also possible that the closures could last significantly beyond our scheduled spring break or for the remainder of the school year. If and when the closure is to be extended, the length of the closure would impact our implementation for continuity of learning. With so much uncertainty, staff is preparing for multiple scenarios.

On Friday, March 13, we provided resources for families to use at home during this initial two-week closure. If a closure is extended, we are prepared to provide additional tools to build on that first set of resources. These resources will be provided online and distributed in hard copy at all of our food distribution sites.

Beyond these resources, our full continuity of learning plans must overcome several challenges. I want to share additional details with you so that you are aware of the task at hand as we work toward implementing a comprehensive distance learning solution for nearly 59,000 students, and preparing instructional staff for delivering content in a way that fulfills all legal and state and federally mandated requirements. I am so proud of the progress our staff across every division has made this week and I hope to share more details on these solutions soon.

Technology: Access to proper technology is at the heart of a distance learning strategy. We are taking inventory of, and collecting all available devices currently in our buildings that could be issued to students, as well as assessing the need for additional devices. Our resource availability will depend on families using devices they already own if possible. As such, we are developing a process for staff and families to evaluate technology available at home and assess needs. At the same time, we are looking for available inventory of devices in the market and within our budget to see how we can overcome this challenge.

The digital tools required for long-term distance learning rely heavily on digital multimedia and online engagement. We have ordered a limited number of hotspot devices, recognizing that not all families and staff have access to the internet at home. Additionally, we are thankful for partners such as Comcast, who have informed us that they are providing greater access and internet speeds to their customers through the Comcast Internet Essentials program. I’m hopeful this will help fill these gaps in accessibility.

Equitable Opportunities: HCPSS serves nearly 59,000 students and equitable education delivery requires us to provide necessary supports and resources for all students to be successful. We are also mindful of federal and state requirements, as well as legal requirements related to supporting Individualized Education Programs for students receiving special education services. The individual needs of children who receive special education services continue to be part of all discussions related to continuity of learning.

Professional Development: This level of distance learning has not been implemented in Howard County before and will require training and professional development to ensure our staff is prepared to fully support this implementation. Over the next several days, staff will be provided with detailed information on professional learning to ensure they are prepared for an instructional model where instructional delivery and student support would occur remotely.

State Requirements: There are still many unknowns for which we are looking to the state for guidance. These include possible waivers on the requirement that students must be in schools for a minimum of 180 days, the impact of this disruption to instruction on seniors and meeting the qualifications for graduation, and many other variables that impact all of the work we are doing and decisions we must make. We expect to hear from the state on these, and other requirements next week.

Our HCPSS definition for equity is “Providing the access, opportunities and supports needed to help students, families and staff reach their full potential by removing barriers to success that individuals face. It does not mean equal or giving everyone the same thing.” This drives our work every day and is driving the work we are doing to prepare for extended closures.

I have great faith in our students, staff and families to make this work regardless of the length of time we may be closed. Howard County is a resilient community and we will make it through this unprecedented time together. I hope this message provides you with additional insight into the challenges we must address before moving to a model of learning from home that can truly support our students and meet the requirements to ensure their success.

Thank you for your understanding and flexibility as we have navigated this first week of school closures. I urge you as we head into this weekend to continue to follow the guidelines for social distancing, do not congregate in outdoor areas and take care of your family’s well-being. While we are preparing for all contingencies, it is also critical that we do our part to reduce the spread of COVID–19.