Wicomico schools to open year with virtual learning

Students in Wicomico County Public Schools will continue with virtual learning during the fall semester under a plan that won unanimous approval from the Board of Education on Tuesday.

Schools closed in March and began online classes due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donna C. Hanlin said educators hoped for a return to in-person learning starting in September, but a recent uptick in coronavirus cases changed her mind.

“In recent weeks it has become clear that the situation has not improved sufficiently for us to safely reopen school buildings to all students and staff,” she said. “Making this decision on how Wicomico County Public Schools will deliver instruction this fall allows our school system and its educators to focus fully on a well-planned and carefully implemented approach to virtual learning.”

Plans will be fine-tuned over the next few weeks, Hanlin said. The school system’s Recovery Plan will be presented at the Aug. 11 Board of Education meeting and posted on the school system’s website wcboe.org by Aug. 14. Families and staff members will receive a link to the Recovery Plan once it has been posted.

Schools will mail fall welcome letters to school families on Aug. 21. The school year will begin on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

The decision not to reopen schools has the support of the Wicomico County Education Association which issued a statement last week urging the Board of Education to put health and safety first.

“There is no way for students and staff to return safely or fairly to school buildings,” the teachers union said in a news release. “Learning will inevitably be lost—but learning can be made up. Lives lost cannot be reclaimed.”

In a Tuesday afternoon call with reporters, Hanlin said there had been a tremendous amount of feedback from parents whose opinions on whether to reopen schools were “a mixed bag” of “very strong emotions.”

Parents were surveyed on 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.

Board Chairman Don Fitzgerald said the decision to continue with virtual learning was not an easy one.

“We know this won’t make everyone happy, but we believe it serves everyone’s best interests for health and safety reasons,” he said. “Instruction online is challenging, but we have outstanding instructional staff who will rise to the occasion and make this semester a meaningful and successful time with their students.”

Online instruction will look very different this fall than what students and parents experienced with the sudden shift to remote learning last spring. Teachers will have the opportunity to prepare for online delivery of their content. Through effectively using platforms like Google Classroom, Zoom, and many others, instruction will be engaging and varied, school officials said. Grades and attendance will count.

The school system plans to supply laptops to every student who needs one, and will guide families currently without internet access at home in affordable ways to get online. Hanlin said connectivity has been a problem for some families in rural parts of the county, but they will be provided with internet hotspots.

School officials also are working to make sure all county students are attending online classes. Psychologists and counselors also will keep in touch with students who may have troubles at home or elsewhere outside of school.

Meals that have been provided to students at 19 sites throughout the summer are expected to continue this fall.

Some small, focused groups of students – such as those needing special support services, or those engaged in a hands-on CTE program – in its buildings later this fall. These small groups may help set the stage for the return of more students to the classroom.

School officials said they will continue to monitor the public health situation and plan for the eventual reopening of school buildings.

Neighboring Dorchester County plans to have schools open in a phased-in approach, beginning with virtual learning for all students and moving to subsequent phases as it becomes safe to do so.

Somerset County will continue with virtual learning for the first four weeks, with the intent to start bringing back students in early October for parents who wish to do so, with priority on special education and ESL students for the first group back in schools.

The Worcester County Board of Education is still seeking community input through Friday.

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