Wicomico schools seek public input on fall openings

Families with students in Wicomico County public schools are being asked to provide input on how the fall learning semester should be structured.

Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin said this week that survey-style questionnaires have been dispatched to households across the county in anticipation of a decision coming by Aug. 1.

“We have been actively planning for the day that everyone can return to school buildings,” Hanlin said. “We need our families to be part of that planning too.”

Calling it essentially a “New School Year Registration,” the survey will provide input on how to best resume instruction in early September.

Though Hanlin said that “things are constantly evolving — when we think we have things set, conditions change in an instant,” three basic scenarios are in play.

For the start of the 2020-2021 school year, there are three possible models for instruction:

  • Green Model: Traditional learning, where all students are in school every day.
  • Red Model: Distance learning, where all students learn remotely every day.
  • Yellow Model: Hybrid learning, with both in-school instruction and at-home learning, or a virtual program for students not returning to a school building.

Unlike the spring, Hanlin said, the school system will not provide the online learning modules and non-digital learning packets that were available beginning in March. She said any students not attending school would have to participate in a separate state-approved virtual program.

Masks will be required for anyone working or learning inside a school board facility. The administration is, however, looking at exceptions for younger students and those attending special education programs.

“The challenge is to balance education needs and maintain safety,” Hanlin said. “We’re not making decisions based on politics — we’re making decisions that are in best interest of students and staff.”

Hanlin said that the school system staff has stocked up on cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, such as masks and disposable gloves. Officials are also ready to implement health screening procedures for those entering any school building. Masks would be provided to any student who doesn’t have one.

Hanlin said that the seven elected members of the Wicomico County Board of Education will help in the decision.

“It’s an instruction issue, so it’s up to the administration,” Hanlin said, “but I believe it should be a Board of Ed and a Superintendent decision.”

She said that state education leaders have said they will support local decisions, but if Gov. Larry Hogan were to issue either new restrictions or an easing of the current rules, the schools would adjust.

Federal CARES Act money is being used to handle technology needs, Hanlin said, and 1-to-1 teaching will be practiced if distance learning is required.

“We have continued to repurpose laptops that were in use at schools for home use, and purchased enough new laptops to ensure a laptop in the fall for every student in Kindergarten through 12th grade,” she said. “I believe we are in tremendously better shape than we were in the spring in terms of technology.”

Wicomico County schools have 2,500 available laptops for students and have ordered an additional 5,000 computers.

The CARES money can pay for 8,000 laptops; the school system already has 2,500 laptops available. There are about 15,000 students in the Wicomico schools system. The supply gap would be covered with students using their own home-based equipment.

Internet access is a recurring issue across the county, especially for families who can’t afford Wi-Fi access. The Greater Salisbury Committee Foundation and Pohanka Automotive Group will support 300 families with access to hotspots; the school system will also employ strategies to help ensure connectivity.

Hanlin stressed that the ever-evolving status of health conditions makes all plans subject to change. Families will continue to receive updates throughout the summer and should refer to the Frequently Asked Questions section on the school system’s website.

After parents send in the registration that provides input, officials will review the advice and send a confirmation communication that provides details for each individual student.

“Parents should weigh in now,” Hanlin said. “We have received lots of feedback and we appreciate that; we need that. We need to know parents’ thoughts. What we’re saying to parents (now) is not set in stone. We will send back registrations to confirm.”

Hanlin said the state deadline for a plan announcement is Aug. 14, but a local decision will come by Aug. 1 to give families more time to prepare.

Details of Wicomico County Public Schools’ three models in need of parental input:

  • Red Model: Distance learning. All instruction conducted online through distance learning platforms. Use of this model would be at the direction of state and local officials, in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. If Wicomico did go to a 100 percent distance learning model in the 2020-2021 school year, it would look different from the distance learning done in the spring. Students would receive letter grades rather than Pass/Incomplete, and attendance would be monitored.
  • Yellow Model: Hybrid of in-school instruction and at-home learning. This model is receiving the greatest focus because it is entirely new and because at this time it seems the most likely scenario. Students would be in school buildings some days while participating in distance learning on other days, to limit capacity and to meet federal and state health guidelines for physical distancing. Procedures for cleaning and disinfecting classrooms and other school spaces and for screening students and staff prior to entering a school each day would be in place. Nothing has been decided, but the school system’s current discussion revolves around a student being in school for instruction two or three days a week — or perhaps most days every other week — while doing distance learning on the days not at school. No more than half of a class would be in the classroom on any given day.
  • Green Model: Traditional learning. While everyone would like to see classroom and school routines return to their pre-Covid-19 state, it seems unlikely that will happen in time for the start of the new school year. Schools will be ready to resume full in-person instruction when Maryland enters Stage 3 and allows for it.
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