Board of Ed Candidates on How They Would Handle Education in the Time of Coronavirus

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In Anne Arundel County, voters in Council districts 2, 3 and 6 will have many important choices to make on Election Day. Among these choices will be new races, for seats on the County Board of Education, as it transitions fully from an appointed to an elected body.

In a continued effort to help voters know their candidates and how they stand on the issues, the Arundel Patriot has graciously allowed space for periodic columns about the Board of Education candidates, and where they stand on issues or recent policy decisions.

You can find my prior article here, about the Board of Education vote on transportation positions versus mental health positions:

This, time, I sent out an email on July 12, asking:

“Coronavirus, and how our schools will operate in the immediate future, weighs heavily on the minds of our community — the students, the teachers and school staff, the parents, and our elected officials, just to name a few. With almost any decision made (distance learning, a hybrid model, physical reopening), members of our community will suffer the consequences.

How would you, as a member of the Board of Education, work to ensure the education of our students while maintaining sufficient community safety in the face of coronavirus?”

I’ve summarized the answers below, to hopefully convey the candidates positions sufficiently and in the interest of space. Full responses are available upon request.

District 2:

Robert Silkworth:

“What are the options for a return to school? I do believe that our superintendent is working hard to prepare for many different options. I believe that some consideration should be given to many options. It is difficult to envision sending 2500 North County students back to school in September the way they were a year ago.  Social distancing is a key to stopping the spread of the virus as is cleanliness and wearing a mask. It is certainly easier to envision a hybrid scenario in which students spend some time face to face and some time learning at home. The possibilities are endless and what might work well for one school might not work so well for another.

                   I do know that when we return to school in September, whatever the scenario, ALL students must have a Chromebook with connectivity guaranteed. If a family has 3 students in our schools, that family should have 3 Chromebooks. NO student should be expected to go to a school parking lot to connect!”

“There are other things which are of importance. We need to assess the impact that the pandemic has had on ALL students with the goal of creating a plan of action to make sure that each and every student will be able to learn and grow. Such assessments might provide insight as to how we should open. Perhaps, some parents might say that they do not want their children to return face to face until there is a viable vaccine. Some parents might say that their children  will be better off in school as much as possible. We must collaborate and work together with all stakeholders to come up with the best answers for Anne Arundel County. “

“There is no magic answer to this question. I believe that we must continue to make preparations for multiple scenarios. We must continue to collaborate with local, state and federal stakeholders. Dr. Salmon and Governor Hogan will be making a decision soon, hopefully within the next week or so. That decision will let us know whether we can or cannot open. Once we have that answer we can continue the process of preparing for the new school year and we must focus on making the best of whatever we must do. ”

Raleigh Turnage Jr.

            No response. However, Mr. Turnage posted a video to Facebook, recommending we follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, as it pertains to opening schools.

District 3:

Ken Baughman:

            “As a parent and an experienced teacher, I believe a combination of distance learning and in-person learning is the most viable option for our school systems this fall. The majority of our students should be on a distance learning track. Over the next six weeks, school districts should focus their resources on how to ensure students receive the same level of education as if they were in a classroom. It’s also critical that they focus on overcoming technology barriers and providing access to technology to students who are in need.

For teachers who are comfortable with in-person teaching, there should be an option for in-person learning for students who need additional help or if distance learning causes unnecessary hardship on the family. This would allow for smaller class sizes and the ability to distance our students while providing a quality education.

Conversation surrounding reopening for the second semester needs to continue to happen. It’s imperative that the Board of Education works towards an equitable solution to best serve students, educators, teachers, and staff.”

Corine Frank:

            No response. However, Ms. Frank did share from her Facebook profile page a letter to the Capital Gazette, Capital Gazette Letters, July 10, 2020 at 3:00 PM

            “There is no one size fits all answer, and a hybrid approach would not be feasible for many families, so I suggest that we explore an option to simply allow parents the choice to enroll their children in a full day back-to-school environment or enroll in a fully online class.

Teachers who are not comfortable returning to the classroom would be able to teach the online courses and teachers who are eager to go back, could, giving them the flexibility to decide what is best for their situation. Allowing this option will organically reduce the number of students and teachers in the buildings and, most importantly, allows families to do what is best for them.”

District 6:

India L. Ochs:

            “Until we know our kids and staff will be safe, I would not be supporting opening the doors.  Same goes with transportation and other factors that all go along with having children in school: we must ensure transportation not only meets all the safety requirements but enforces those requirements, which is why I fully believe we need new staff in the transportation department to effectively coordinate these changes to protect our children, bus drivers, and aides.

That being said, it is not looking plausible to reopen our buildings at this time, which goes to the other part of the question of ensuring the education of all our students if we go 100% virtual for the fall.  As a Board member, I would work to make sure measures are put in place to check on the implementation of all the different plans and ensure all our kids actually are getting the same, equal, education as their peers. In the spring, there was no consistency in tracking “attendance” and assignments, and more importantly the word “engaged” was disturbingly misused when discussing student involvement in online learning. We cannot rely on logging in once, or even logging in every day as a measure of engagement, not to mention there was no way to track the students who did not have access to the online classroom.  Just as AACPS was amiss in not sending out invitations for summer classes to students in elementary school with high grades.  AACPS cannot just assume a child with all As is actually “engaged” in the learning.  As a parent and educator, I would want our students to actually be learning through engagement with teachers and reviewing the lesson plan since, to me, that is how people understand things, versus a student that skips three days of math lessons and just takes the math quiz since it was easy to pass.  Just as we must ensure students with no internet access have access to the exact SAME lessons/materials as those online. It was unfair for so many online lessons to include videos, videos our students with hard paper assignments never got to see. Until all our students have equal access to the assignments, there will be no equitable grading by teachers.

Then there are students that require additional attention. As a Board member, I would not stay silent until the needs of all our students on IEPs and 504s are met. The pandemic does not negate federal law to provide these students with the same level of education as their peers, and we cannot use lack of funding or resources as excuses. The same is true for our students with limited English, they already are the most vulnerable to not graduate and we can not widen that gap during this crisis.  There was also inconsistency in outreach on mental health and bullying issues – issues that do not disappear just because kids are home. Counselors may have been there but it was more relying on the students to reach out to them, when it should be the reversed. “

Ms. Ochs closed with the following remark:

“I could go on and on about all the different areas AACPS needs to address to ensure a safe and equitable education for all our students, but the bottom lime is AACPS and the Board should be approaching 2020-2021 from the lens of those most in need, most vulnerable, and meet their needs first. If we did that, the reality is that all students’ needs would be met. “

Joanna Bache Tobin:

“As a Board of Education member, I would insist that AACPS model the best leadership by adhering to the most respected science and medical recommendations to determine if, when, and how schools will reopen in the Fall of 2020. Keeping students, families, teachers and staff as safe as possible is the first and highest priority. That approach is what I would want for my own child.

That being said, there are a host of competing concerns to be weighed, including, but not limited to, the following: (1) the value of and need for in-person teaching and learning; (2) the need for day care for children whose parents must work; (3) the difficulty of meeting independent education plans of special-needs students in an online learning environment: (4) student’s social and emotional needs to be with their friends and teachers; (5) continuing online learning with insufficient access (internet and devices) for many students, particularly in the Annapolis cluster;(6) concerns about children who are trapped in difficult or even dangerous home situations;(7) the need to deliver meals to children who routinely depend upon receiving breakfast and lunch at school.

In light of all these concerns, I would insist that AACPS take the following steps:

  • Conduct careful logistical analysis of available options/senarios, while considering the full implications from buses to classrooms to meals to everything in between. An equity lens must then be placed on all options, including the prominent hybrid models for education during Covid because not all students are equal in their ability to access online learning and alternate transportation to and from school. Following a rigorous evaluation of options, AACPS must be transparent in sharing information to the greatest extent possible.
  • Set up and maintain the best possible communications with families right away.  As soon as students are assigned to teachers and classes, empower teachers to reach out individually to their students and families. We must learn from past failures how important one-on-one communication is to the success of the student during chaotic times.
  • Determine realistically which education scenario will be followed.   AACPS must be clear about the availability of resources, including teachers, staff and building space at each school. As part of the resource evaluation, AACPS must also determine if there are a sufficient number of long-term substitute teachers available to step in if the health situations of permanent teachers and staff members change as the semester progresses.
  • Spend as much time and as many resources as possible on high-quality professional development that enables teachers to deliver good online teaching. An expenditure of time and money must ensure that teachers also have sufficient access to appropriate devices and strong, high-speed internet connections.
  • Ensure that all necessary information about new and returning students’ access to technology is part of the school registration process.
  • Ensure that both synchronous and asynchronous learning options are available to all students to enable those who, for example, can only access online learning when their parents are home from work, or when older students do not have to help their younger siblings with their school work online.”

Ms Tobin closed with the following remarks:

“Finally, a lesson we all have learned from this pandemic is that education does not occur in a vacuum; it touches our lives and the economy in many ways. As a result, the BOE and AACPS must enlist the support of other county leadership to ensure all pieces of this puzzle are on the table, such as: (1) Working to increase affordable day-care options, (2) ensuring high-speed internet is installed and available to all families and students in low-income areas, and (3) working to ensure that there are additional food distribution mechanisms and supports for students and their families available when and if schools are shut down.”

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