BCPS still working out some kinks to reopening plan
BALTIMORE COUNTY— Baltimore County Public Schools has updated its reopening plan after holding a school board meeting where questions and concerns were brought up about the upcoming school year.
Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) will have virtual learning planned from Tuesday, September 8, 2020, through the end of the first semester on January 29, 2021. However, at the end of the first quarter, the board will reevaluate this decision in order to determine if a hybrid of both virtual and face-to-face classes could take place.
As announced in July, teachers will provide live, virtual instruction on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, in addition to independent student work and small group instruction. Wednesdays are reserved for targeted student intervention and independent student work. School schedules will provide opportunities for movement and screen and lunch breaks.
The version of the updated plan, which was developed by BCPS and community leaders based on community surveys, advisory groups, and advice from health and education experts, includes additional information about attendance, special education, assessments, schedules, and athletics, among other topics. The entire plan can be viewed at www.bcps. org/reopen/pdf/Reopening-Plan.pdf.
BCPS issued its reopening survey after the end of the 2019-2020 school year. In addition to the 16 stakeholder input sessions, the public survey garnered over 52,000 responses from students, parents/ caregivers, community members, and central office and school-based staff. The survey asked, among other considerations, for respondents to rank their preferred model of instruction to start the coming school year: 100% in-person instruction, a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, and 100% virtual instruction.
There was no clear agreement among the model preferences of students, school-based staff, and parents/caregivers, so the BCPS Design Team continued to consider starting the 2020-2021 school year with a 100% virtual learning or a hybrid model of synchronous (live) and asynchronous (anytime) instruction.
As the team examined the models further, several implementation challenges emerged that reduced the feasibility of implementing each model. Therefore, the decision to begin the school year with 100% virtual instruction was made based on the rising COVID-19 infection rates as of July 16, 2020, and the medical models, which predict a second increase in COVID-19 infections after the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
There were many questions that were brought up at the nearly four hour school board meeting; student safety, accessibility to internet and quality of educational experience were among the most talked about concerns among the board members.
“While this is usually a relaxed time, it is not relaxed now because we are committed to providing the very best for every child in Baltimore County Public Schools,” Kathleen Causey, School Board Chair said at the start of the meeting.
William Burke, Chief of Organizational Effectiveness, addressed many of the questions brought up by board members throughout the meeting and began by addressing three keys aspects of the virtual reopening plan; health and safety of students and staff, students will have a rigorous instruction which will consist of teacher-led instruction and independent work and small group collaboration.
Burke then dived into more specific part of the plan like attendance and grading criteria. Attendance will be taken daily for elementary students and attendance for middle and high school students will be taken per class period. Instead of the pass or fail grading procedure implemented at the start of virtual learning in March, grades will return to the original letter grading scale ( A, B, C etc.).
“Diagnostic assessments will also be administered for each grade level and content area in order to diagnose any unfinished learning during this past spring quarter,” Burke said.
“These assessments will allow teachers to see where students stand on critical content and prerequisite skills in order for them to develop instruction and learning pathways tailored to students’ needs.”
Students with disabilities will also continue to have the support from their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Burke advised parents with children who have IEPs to notify the Special Education Resource Center by calling (410)-8875443 if they need any additional support while their child continues their virtual learning.
As for preschoolers and pre-kindergarteners, materials will be mailed to students’ homes for each curricular unit and teachers will contact students and families for direct instruction.
In terms of preparing teachers for more virtual instruction, workshops are being offered this month that will provide tips on how to successfully run virtual classrooms.
“Teachers have the option of participating in workshops during the weeks of August 17 and the 24 to help them prepare for more online teaching. Topics will be on best practices for online lesson development and delivery, how to improve the functionality of Schooligy and Google Meet, and how to meet the social and emotional needs of students in an online environment,” Burke said.
There were board members who said despite the training teachers will go through, they still have concerns about teacher’s abilities to assist children who have problems logging on to their virtual class environments.
Burke said it is not decided yet if it will be up to teachers or a specific person assigned to troubleshoot technological issues to contact a student’s parents or caregivers if/when a child is unable to access their virtual classroom.
“That would be difficult in an immediate situation, depending on the number of students [a teacher] was working with and the activity they were running. I hate to say yes or no because I think it’s something we need to explore.”
Burk said BCPS is still contemplating on ways to ensure teachers have stable internet and WiFi access— something that was a problem for some teachers during the spring when they failed to attend their own
“It does include hotspots and it may include providing actual locations where they would have better access but we are still investigating those opportunities,” Burke said.
Hotspots will also be set up at the homes of families who live in more rural areas where WiFi connection tends to be weaker or where many families don’t have strong internet access. BCPS is also par tnering with the county on small, rural broadband grants to expand wireless services to parking lots of key schools in rural areas.
A question was brought up on whether there would be school resource officers present at these parking lots while students and their families were there. Superintendant Darryl Williams responded and said BCPS will work on a safety plan with the county to ensure that students who need to use the parking lot hotspots can do so in a safe way.
Another concern that was brought up at the meeting was related to student safety and privacy when it comes to virtual classrooms. Traditional school classrooms typically only have the students and teachers in them. However, with the virtual classrooms, family members and caregivers of students can also have access to the classrooms and hear and see what students are saying and doing.
Burke said that the code of ethics that will be released will address safety and privacy issues and said providing headphones to students may be a way to establish a buffer between the classroom and home environments of students.
The amount of screen time for students, especially for younger students in kindergarten and elementary school, was also another concern among board members.
“We will make sure kids aren’t just sitting around a screen all day hearing a teacher teach,” Burke said in his reply. “They will have opportunities to turn off the screen and do independent work or work in small groups.”
Student member of the board Josh Muhumuza asked if lessons would be recorded in order for students to rewatch them if for some reason they missed them.
Burk said the topic of recording classes or specific lessons has been a subject of controversy due to concerns surrounding student privacy but said teachers will have the option of whether they choose to record their lessons or not.
“I’m hopeful that they will because then they can bank them as resources for students later,” Burke said.
More information about the reopening plan was revealed in a BCPS press release last week. The release states that through the end of the first marking period on November 13, 2020, administrations of the SAT college entrance exam, the SAT day initiative providing the SAT for free during the school day, and the PSAT are canceled.
The release also stated that Chromebook distribution for students in Grades Kindergarten through 12 will continue until a 1:1 student-to-device ratio is achieved.
BCPS will survey families from December 1-18 regarding interest in continuing virtual learning or opting into hybrid (in-person and virtual) instruction, if safe to do so for February through June 2021.
Reopening model preferences by stakeholder group and implementation challenges of in-person and hybrid instruction. 42% of BCPS students who participated in the Survey said they prefer 100% in person learning while 42.9% of BCPS staff member s who participated in the survey said they prefer 100% virtual learning.
The reopening plan can be viewed at https://www.bcps.org/reopen/pdf/ReopeningPlan.pdf