UNCERTAINTY, DIVISION, AND CONCERNS ABOUT SAFETY AND IMPLEMENTATION PLAGUE PLANS TO REOPEN ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY SCHOOLS
Less than a month before students are set to return to classrooms, Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) and its stakeholders remain divided over the hybrid education plan and timeline to reopen schools. Concerns abound regarding the transparency of the process culminating in the reopening plan; the lack of input from parents, teachers, and staff; the safety of reopening; and the impact of hybrid learning on the quality of education. Under the timeline approved by the Board on October 7, hybrid students in grades K through two return November 16, and hybrid students in grades three through five return November 30. Teachers, including middle and high school teachers, return November 2. No timeline has yet been approved for the return of middle and high school students, although AACPS aims to bring those students back in mid-December.
The decision to bring elementary students back to school in mid November surprised parents, teachers, and staff given Superintendent of Schools George Arlotto’s announcement in July that learning would be conducted virtually through first semester. Many have questioned the basis for the decision to reopen in November and what triggered it given the recent uptick in county Covid 19 case numbers. On July 20, the date when the announcement was made that learning would remain virtual through first semester, the county’s seven-day rolling average new case rate per 100,000 residents was 10.9. For the last week the county’s rate has exceeded that number.
One aspect of the plan that has generated the most outcry is the November reopening timeline. Parents, teachers, and staff have criticized the timeline as rushed given that many details of the plan remain unclear and that it will cause another disruption for students, even those who will not physically return to school. At Large Board Member Julie Hummer, who was interviewed for this article, revealed that the numerous emails she has received from concerned constituents have focused largely on the timing of the plan.
Board members who voted for the plan explained in written responses to the Patriot’s questions that the decision to approve the timeline came down to improving health conditions. Board President and District 7 Member Michelle Corkadel stated, “I refer you to the various public updates the board received over the last several months and the American Pediatric Association and Governor and the State Superintendent recommendations.” District 4 Board Member Melissa Ellis, who moved for approval of the hybrid plan, cited a duty to open schools “as soon as it is considered safe,” pointing to students struggling with virtual learning and metrics developed by County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman, declaring, “A virus caused our schools to close, and only the virus should be the reason to keep them closed.” Hummer, who did not vote for the plan, stated that she believed the timeline to be based upon health metrics and the amount of lead time it would take for families to make decisions about what option to select.
The county’s current case numbers do not meet the metrics set forth by Dr. Kalyanaraman, causing more uncertainty for stakeholders. Under those metrics, reopening is not recommended if the county’s seven day rolling average is not at or below 10 new cases per 100,000 residents. Since the Board approved the timeline on October 7, the County’s new case rate has not fallen below that threshold. Parents, teachers, and staff worry that case numbers will continue to increase with the onset of cold weather, holidays, and flu season, causing them to further doubt the wisdom of rushing to resume in-person instruction..
Several Board members have told the Patriot that they will not support reopening if county case numbers do not meet health metrics. Ellis wrote that she does not support reopening “in conditions that are outside the metrics developed by the health experts.” Corkadel stated that “if the metrics advises to delay, then we delay.” Hummer also supports delaying reopening if case numbers do not meet county health metrics, and expressed her hope that other Board members would follow suit. She takes the position that if conditions do not allow for safe reopening on November 16, then reopening should be delayed until the end of first semester because of the uncertainty for parents that could result from changing conditions. It is unclear what action the Board must take to develop a revised timeline or delay implementation of the plan and timeline it approved.
Compounding frustration with the uncertainty surrounding the hybrid education plan and timeline was how the process in developing and approving the plan unfolded. Key stakeholders have complained that they had no input into a plan that will affect their health and safety and were unaware that a plan had been formulated before it was announced publicly.
Teachers received no advance notice of the timeline or opportunity to provide input before it was announced at a Board meeting on October 5, despite numerous calls for transparency and inclusion in AACPS’s plans to address the pandemic. “I get more information and details from browsing social media than I do from my employer,” said middle school teacher Robin Beers. “Teachers for years have heard things on the news before we’ve heard from employers. We get texts from parents. Nothing is communicated directly. It makes me feel like I’m not valued, and it compounds over time. It is upsetting to feel that way and then be asked to put your health and safety on the line.”
Less than two weeks before the plan and timeline was approved, Russell Leone, President of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County (TAAAC), gave a press conference in which he highlighted that teachers are not provided with information or input on key developments related to the pandemic. Leone, who was interviewed for this article, said that TAAAC was advised of the reopening timeline and hybrid education plan on the morning of October 5, but that the information that it received about the plan consisted of an informational preview and did not provide details of what the plan would entail. Teacher concerns about the lack of advance notice also stem from their own need to address childcare since they are expected to report on November 2, health and safety, and the lack of clarity about how hybrid education will be conducted.
AACPS also kept reopening committees in the dark about the plan and timeline. AACPS established 14 committees “to produce viable options for reopening school for the Fall 2020 semester.” One of those committees, the Academics Committee, was tasked with developing a hybrid education plan during last school year and began gathering information around May or June to make a recommendation on such a plan, according to Kristen Caminiti, a parent committee member. After Dr. Arlotto announced the decision to proceed virtually for first semester, the committee shifted to developing a virtual model and optimizing it. It did not participate in the development of the plan approved by the Board and did not learn about it until a meeting at 2:30 p.m. the day that the plan was presented to the Board. Corroborating that some reopening committees were kept out of the loop, Leone disclosed that while teachers served on some of the committees, they were unaware of the plan before its public announcement.
Members of the public, including parents, were not aware of the development of the plan. AACPS’s first public statement about the plan and timeline appeared in an October 1 news release. The news release, which was disseminated only to subscribers, stated that public comments had to be submitted no later than 4 pm October 2 in advance of an October 5 Board meeting to consider the plan that had not been previously announced. While the news release stated that the plan was “set to launch later this calendar year,” it did not disclose the November return dates, provide information on how the plan would be implemented, or identify what students would be returning.
Parents scrambled to provide feedback on the plan within the short window for the submission of public comments in advance of the October 5 Board meeting. Laticia Hicks, who ran for the District 7 Board seat and served on the Crofton school redistricting committee, was alarmed by the reference in the October 1 news release to launch a hybrid education plan during the calendar year. Personally knowing people who died of Covid19 and having prepared herself and her children for virtual learning, she worried that the voices of parents concerned about hastily reopening schools were not being heard. She reached out to other parents with her concerns, including Caminiti. Hicks spearheaded the formation of the Parental Alliance for School Safety. Within one day, the group gained 300 members, and within a span of approximately two weeks, it has amassed almost 3,000 members. The goal of the group is to prioritize students most in need of in-person instruction and to keep as many students as possible learning virtually to protect the health and safety of teachers and students.
Adding to outrage about the process was that the Board did not approve motions to solicit public testimony and seek input from stakeholders, despite an outpouring of concern from members of the public. In response to a question from the Patriot as to why she did not support the motions, Corkadel, who dismissed public concern about the plan as “orchestrated,” during the October 5 Board meeting where the motions were presented, explained that her duties as Board President required her to be neutral. “As the President, there are rare occasions a proposed board action is best supported by said decision maker’s neutrality. I refer to several sections of Robert’s Rules of Order as it pertains to abstention and president duties. I am fully supporting this effort of the board and part of the administrative process to fulfill this board action (hence the abstention).” Hummer agrees with calls to allow stakeholders more input, stating that she was hearing from staff and parents that the plan was sprung on them. “We as a Board should take that seriously,” she said.
Timing aside, teachers, parents, and staff continue to have serious concerns about the hybrid education plan and continue to undertake efforts to make their voices heard. Chief among those concerns is safety for all of those people in school buildings, especially given that the CDC, which continues to recommend that workers work remotely, released updated guidance the day that the plan was presented to the Board acknowledging airborne transmission of the virus from distances further than 6 feet.
Teachers have numerous concerns about health and safety aspects of the plan that they are attempting to address through bargaining. A stumbling block for teachers in assessing health risks under the hybrid plan, however, is the lack of clarity surrounding how in-person instruction will be implemented. “People can’t make decisions for their own safety based on constantly changing information,” said Beers. Specific concerns include how student cohort groups will work and how secure they will be if volunteers or other teachers assist multiple cohorts, potentially maximizing the possibility of exposure. Teachers are also concerned about how to ensure that students wear masks, how safety will be maintained during “mask breaks,” and during lunchtime. Other concerns include the sufficiency of ventilation, especially for older school buildings.
The process by which teachers and staff can seek health accommodations has contributed to teacher concerns. While teachers can request accommodations at any time, the approval process and response times are opaque, and the process has not run smoothly. Given what she has observed, Beers does not have much faith in the process. At times, forms for accommodations have not been available and have changed from day to day. Some teachers were advised by an AACPS Division of Human Resources representative via email that “Responses to inquiries about COVID-related accommodations will be extremely limited.”
TAAAC is currently in negotiations on behalf of teachers with AACPS to obtain written assurances regarding health and safety. According to Leone, one key goal for teachers is to ensure that safety protocols are uniform and consistently enforceable in all school buildings. While he could not provide specifics on other concessions that TAAAC is seeking given the ongoing nature of negotiations, he said that “it is a step in the right direction” that TAAAC is back at the table. Observing that “a lot of work still needs to be done to address safety concerns,” Leone hopes that the timeline will be reconsidered because the dates for return are fast approaching.
Others affected by the reopening plan, such as temporary support assistants (TSA), do not have a means to negotiate concessions for their health and safety. TSAs are not represented by a union and do not receive health benefits or leave, so have heightened concerns about what will happen if they contract Covid19 and need medical attention. TSA duties call for close contact with students. They are often called upon to wipe noses, change diapers, assist children with meals, and guide them around the school. TSA Shayla Pratt has been working remotely since schools closed and has maintained a heavy workload. Pratt, who suffers from asthma, feels that the looming return to school places her in an impossible situation; she does not know how she will be able to perform her regular duties without risking her health, let alone enforce mask wearing and handwashing with the students she assists. While she can apply for an accommodation to continue work virtually, she was advised that an accommodation would substantially decrease her work hours. Since she is an hourly employee, she says that she cannot afford for her work hours to be reduced.
Aside from health and safety concerns, parents and teachers alike worry that hybrid instruction could negatively affect the quality of education all students receive. A concern expressed vociferously by numerous parents is that children may be placed with different teachers midway through the school year, adding more upheaval and instability to a less than ideal situation. While AACPS has stated that it will attempt to keep students and teachers together, it cannot guarantee that it will be able to do so. Another concern is that hybrid teachers will be required to simultaneously instruct in-person and virtual students, addressing technological issues, enforcing mask and social distancing requirements, and assisting and supervising students who are physically present. Parents wonder whether the benefits of limited in-person instruction outweigh the costs. A key benefit that those supporting in-person instruction tout is interaction and connection with other students and teachers. While Ellis has represented that in-person instruction will not simply amount to virtual instruction and that teachers will be able to interact with students in the classroom, it is unclear how such interaction and connection will occur under social distancing guidelines.
The only certainty surrounding the hybrid education plan and a proposed first semester return is uncertainty. It is unclear whether the plan will be implemented at all given that county case numbers continue to trend upwards. On October 21, the Board will hear an update on the hybrid education plan and will consider a proposal for a needs assessment. Like much that has surrounded the process, it is unclear how those developments will shape the path forward.
Correction: We previously reported that Kristen Caminiti was the only parent representative on any of the 14 AACPS committees addressing pandemic related issues. That information has been removed; Caminiti was the sole parent representative on the Academics Committee.
Leah Frazier is an attorney and a hockey fan from Anne Arundel County.
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