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Board of Education Work Session, Superintendent’s Opening Remarks, July 16, 2020

July 16th, 2020

The following remarks were delivered by HCPSS Superintendent Michael Martirano at the Board of Education virtual work session on fall reopening, July 16, 2020:

Good afternoon. Last week, we brought several items for consideration to the Board that required discussion and decisions. I appreciate the efficiency with which the Board worked to bring closure to several items. We were able to finalize a calendar modification that included delaying the start of the school year. The first day of school for the 2020-2021 school year is now Tuesday, September 8. The Board approved the purchase of additional Chromebooks to help remove technology barriers and advance equitable student learning outcomes. The current distribution plan for available devices is to provide 1:1 devices for students in grades Pre-K-8, and then prioritize remaining devices to high school students in need. This represents a change from the most recent proposal to the Board and aligns to recommendations that I will describe momentarily. Students who have already been provided with a Chromebook, including those enrolled in high school, will be permitted to continue using those devices during the 2020-2021 school year. Finally, the Board approved a modified, “4×4” semester schedule for the middle and high school levels. The reduction of courses taken during a semester will help teachers and students manage workloads and streamline synchronous sessions no matter which instructional model we are in.

The work that we accomplished last week was essential to the efforts we must make today. In these opening remarks, I am going to provide a significant recommendation to the Board for consideration. I will also provide several pieces of information and data that support this recommendation and will help guide us through our discussions. At the end of my remarks, staff will deliver a short presentation with additional information and we will seek Board decisions on three important items. Numerous staff are available to answer questions and provide additional information.

Please keep at the forefront of your mind that the safety, health and well-being of our students, teachers and staff is paramount in our thinking and any and all decisions being made about reopening schools for the upcoming school year.

Recommendations to the Board of Education

Members of the Board, the first item that we will be seeking Board approval for is the recommendation to begin the school year for students on September 8, 2020, in a fully virtual format and remain virtual through the first academic quarter, which ends on November 6, 2020.

Please note that the fully virtual start that I am proposing is not identical to the Digital Education Center that was discussed last week. This virtual solution would be delivered through each child’s home school. Though instruction will occur virtually, it will differ from the Spring Continuity of Learning solution and more closely resemble the traditional levels of rigorous instruction that we have provided so well for so many years.

In support of the fully virtual recommendation, the second and third decision points that we will be advancing today pertain to a timeline to further evaluate a transition to a hybrid or in-person model and more specifics about what the hybrid model will look like.

The second decision point is determining a date by which we will come back to the Board with a recommendation to either remain in a fully virtual format or transition to a hybrid, or fully in-person model, to begin the second quarter. That recommendation will be based on an assessment of the pandemic’s prevalence at that time, as well as the critical factors identified by the Board and our experiences during the initial weeks of school and in consultation with state, local and medical officials. The third decision point is determining a date by which we will return to the Board with a more fully vetted hybrid model. Transitioning to a hybrid model involves many logistics and we want to ensure we have additional time to incorporate some of the feedback that was discussed at our last Board meeting such as parental choice and staff workload.

I will come back to the three decision points at the end of my remarks, but now I will provide additional information and data that explain why we are advancing the recommendation to begin the school year in a fully virtual format.

Health, Safety and Operations

I continue to lead with the health and safety of our students and staff members. All decisions must be made with this priority at the forefront. At our last meeting, Board members began discussing factors that would need to be considered in order for them to feel comfortable with students and staff returning to our school buildings. Some of these factors, but not limited to, were:

We can refine this list of factors as we agree to next steps in our fall recovery process.

Looking at just what we know specific to the Howard County Public School System, we are aware that 35-45% of our students have at least one medical diagnosis and about 15-20% of our total student population are more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 due to a chronic health issue. Additionally, 11% of school-based staff are of age 60 or older, which places them at a higher risk of the serious health impacts of COVID-19 according to data provided by the CDC. We should also make the assumption that we have younger staff below that age range who may have medical issues that put them at a higher risk.

For some context, the United States has recorded more than 3.4 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University, and at least 137,000 Americans have died. Across the world, 13.5 million people have tested positive for the virus and over 584,000 have died.

The CDC has cautioned that a full Pre-K-12 reopening would be regarded as “highest risk,” and the more people interact, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. The “lowest risk,” the guidelines say, would be for students and teachers to attend virtual-only classes. A hybrid model is described as “more risk”. Additionally, the CDC stated on their website that “If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk. Children can pass this virus on to others who have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

I have great faith in the efforts of our custodians, operations staff, teachers, school administrators and all other HCPSS staff to follow stringent guidelines and do everything in their power to create and maintain a safe and healthy environment in every classroom and office. However, even with their extraordinary efforts, it is not guaranteed that COVID-19 won’t infiltrate our schools and offices and be spread between students and staff. In fact, I believe that most of us could agree that an outbreak on some level would be likely.

Community Fear

I have heard loud and clear the voices of the students, staff and families who are asking for schools to return to a sense of normalcy. I want these members of our community to understand that I hear their calls and I share their urgency to return to that place very soon.

At the same time, it is extremely difficult to ease the minds of those who are concerned for their own health, or that of their children and family members, without the deployment of a vaccine because we are in uncharted territory and there is very little guidance to support a physical return to schools at this time. There was a report in The Washington Post earlier this week that described successful return to schools in countries where the virus is having less of an impact than it is in the United States. Unfortunately, no other country in the world has as many cases as we have had and we are now seeing a rise in cases in this country.

In the survey that was conducted by HCPSS, 66% of our staff respondents were “quite concerned” to “extremely concerned” about their own health and safety if we were to return to school buildings in the fall. Similarly, at least 60% of our parents and guardians at each school level were “quite concerned” to “extremely concerned” about their children’s health and safety if we were to return to school buildings in the fall. In general, over half of staff felt that it is “not at all safe” or “a little safe” for students and staff to return to school in the fall, with an additional 24% feeling it would just be “somewhat safe.” This input by our stakeholders is significant as we make decisions to reopen schools and offices.

During the initial period of virtual learning, we will focus on preparing facilities, training staff and students on preventative measures, and communicating plans with families. We must build a strong foundation of trust to ensure that all stakeholders feel safe for an eventual return to school buildings.

Developing an Effective Instructional Delivery Model

We are being challenged to develop an entirely new model for teaching and learning. My question to the Board is: Why try to create more than one entirely new model simultaneously, which is what we would be doing in an attempt to create a fully-digital and a hybrid model at the same time? The truth is that all of the time and resources that we dedicate to developing a second model will be done at the expense of the first.

My recommendation is to focus all of our energies and resources to implementing the best virtual solution possible for the start of the school year. We will be able to leverage the numerous instructional materials that are readily available and dedicate efforts to building our own. This allows us to focus all our energies on implementing a fully virtual model and more fully vet a hybrid model. It also provides time for Board members and parents to take tours of schools to see physical changes implemented that help ensure student and staff safety.

Additionally, we will be able to learn from the successes and challenges realized from our virtual model and that of other districts that attempt to implement a hybrid solution at the beginning of the school year.

Minimizing Disruption

Attempting to implement multiple solutions and a variety of options for students and staff would create disruption, confusion and result in a less effective solution. My recommendation will eliminate several challenges and allow students, staff and families to focus on one single robust solution at a time. The worst thing that we could do midway through the academic quarter is try to stop on a dime and pull a complete 180 to a different instructional delivery model. Instead, let’s create stability and predictability.

We don’t know what October, November or next February will look like so we need to focus on the task immediately in front of us, which is starting the school year on September 8, 2020. We will continue to reevaluate the constantly evolving situation and begin to move to a hybrid or in-person model as we are able to do so. Attempting to make those decisions now for months in advance is premature.

Additionally, I want to finalize this plan as soon as possible so families have time to coordinate child care and other family needs. I realize that as more and more people are going back to work, the decision to have children learning from home creates challenges for many families. That fact weighed heavily as we came to this decision. We will continue to work with our community partners who provide child care services so they are able to offer as many opportunities for families as possible.

Decisions of Neighboring Counties

I have continued to work collaboratively with Superintendents from the other 23 districts in Maryland and I can assure you that no decision is being made in a vacuum. We are constantly sharing information, insights, and learning from one another. Several neighboring districts have either formalized a decision for the fall or have provided insights into what their decision may be. According to information posted on The Baltimore Sun’s website:

Following this meeting, and in line with the decisions that will be made, staff will finalize and communicate what this decision means for families and the many considerations that accompany the decision in early August. Additional information related to special education accommodations, meal services, supporting students with 504 plans and those who are English language learners, and the impact on several other student groups will be provided to families and posted on the HCPSS website.

Similar to last week’s meeting, I am asking for Board approval on three decision points.

  1. Approve a fully virtual start to the school year for the first quarter,
  2. Approve a date (possibly October 8, 2020) for the Board to consider whether to shift from the virtual model to either a hybrid or fully face-to-face model, or remain in a fully virtual mode for the second quarter, and
  3. Approve a date (possibly September 24, 2020) for staff to present a more fully vetted hybrid model to the Board that prioritizes safety, operations, and instruction, and considers parental choice and staff workload.

I’ll close with a quote that was shared by an HCPSS parent and stood out to me. They said, “You’ll never make everyone happy. Do what you’d want for your own children, please.”

At this time, I will turn it over to Scott Ruehl, the HCPSS director of Leadership Development, who will provide additional information about the proposed fully virtual start to the school year, including the modified, “4×4” semester schedule for the middle and high school levels, ways to support students with special needs, and details on the three decision points that I am advancing to the Board this afternoon.