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Back to the books means new start for everyone

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Photo by Emily Calkins.

Howard County public schools will operate virtually for the first half of the school year, returning to the contingency model adopted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine.

Among the biggest concerns’ administrators have is ensuring equitable access and learning opportunities for all students and the budgetary adjustments that will be necessary to deliver virtual education.

According to Michael Martirano, Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) superintendent, several grants will allow the school system to eventually achieve a 1:1 device ratio for all students with a one percent reserve for replacement.

A partnership with the Bright Minds Foundation provides Internet service for qualifying families, either through Internet service providers or hotspots, and an additional Broadband for Underserved Populations grant of $213,649 will help provide access for needy students.

“Our most immediate impact aside from Chromebooks has been the need to implement virtual learning platforms through software such as Dreambox and Lexia and creating support for tutoring needs in math and reading,” Martirano said. “There has been a significant additional cost to deliver robust virtual instruction for the first semester in excess of $11 million.”

A CARES Technology Grant and CARES Tutoring Grant provide approximately $8.7 million with the remainder covered by budgetary measures that include expenditure management and use of the $3 million COVID-19 budget reserve approved by the Board of Education for fiscal 2021.

Construction Advance

The county began moving forward with construction projects for High School 13, the Talbott Springs Elementary School replacement, and Hammond High School renovations while students were learning virtually this spring.

In the fall, an administrator will be in each school during the school day and teachers have the option of teaching virtually from their classrooms.

“We are exploring ways to take advantage of the limited use of our facilities due to the virtual environment to expedite [other] construction projects without interfering with teachers,” Martirano said.

“We still have half a billion dollars in deferred maintenance and most of those dollars are HVAC projects,” said Vicky Cutroneo, vice chair of the Howard County Board of Education, addressing the Howard County Chamber of Commerce during an online discussion with state and local elected officials in August. “With air quality, filtration and ventilation becoming major news because of COVID, I think it’s important to keep this in mind.”

Logistics

With parents and caregivers returning to work and many young children learning from home, childcare is now a concern for many working families.

HCPSS will host multiple childcare providers for day care and before and after care during school days.

“Providers are working with the Division of Operations to determine the feasibility for capacity and service hours,” Martirano said, adding that families seeking childcare can connect with resources through the Howard County Child Care Resource Center.

Although early intervention and special education services will be provided virtually during the first semester, “It is also a goal to explore every available opportunity to engage small numbers of students in face-to-face instructional and well-being support,” he said.

“We agree the best place for the students is in the classroom, but the caveat is safely,” Cutroneo said. “My hope is that we can be opening schools for small groups for some of our most vulnerable students, those who need special services or can’t learn virtually and need in-person instruction and intervention.”

Fall athletic programs have been postponed and certain extracurricular activities and clubs may be able to function virtually.

Meanwhile, the HCPSS food services program will offer Grab-and-Go meals at all 76 school sites, which will operate four days per week and provide free, reduced price or paid meals for Monday through Friday based on each student’s eligibility status.

Reevaluation Schedule

Despite all the uncertainty tied to the pandemic, HCPSS has seen significantly less attrition from teachers and other staff than in a typical year, Martirano said.

“Our other employees still have a sufficient volume of work,” he said. “Our maintenance teams will use this time to service our facilities [and] get caught up on outstanding facilities repairs and projects. At the same time, our leadership teams will continue to prepare for the possibility of implementing a hybrid or full return to school in the spring.”

Business partnerships are also holding up.

“We have had more potential partners reach out to us willing to help during the pandemic, especially in the areas of tutoring and providing food and other supplies,” Martirano said. “The challenge has been that the virtual environment makes it difficult to infuse partners into the instructional day as they have become accustomed to when students and staff are in school.”

Beyond the first semester, HCPSS staff will prepare a detailed and fully vetted hybrid model for the Board of Education’s consideration in re-evaluating the fully virtual decision for the second semester, Martirano said.

Presentation of hybrid models will occur on Nov. 15, with a re-evaluation of the second semester model scheduled for Nov. 19.

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | September 2020 Issue

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