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Monday, November 16, 2020
Dear FCPS Community:
The recent increase in COVID cases in Frederick County, across Maryland, and across our nation have created additional fear and uncertainty for all of us. Meanwhile, important conversations about reopening schools, returning to athletic competition, and analyzing data on positivity rates and confirmed cases have raised many questions.
At the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, November 11, the Board voted to allow FCPS to begin a hybrid model of instruction from PreK through Grade 12 at the start of the 2nd semester (January 28.) The Board also identified dates for employees to return to schools and offices to prepare for the transition to this hybrid model. Finally, the Board approved a motion to allow the Superintendent in collaboration with the Frederick County Health Department to determine if there was a need to delay implementation and remain in a full virtual model.
Since these decisions were made, many people have questioned why the Board would send students back to school when COVID cases are on the rise, and they want to know the exact metric that will guide the decision to go to hybrid or stay in virtual. The COVID-19 Guidance for Maryland Schools, issued in August 2020 by the Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland State Department of Education, includes Health metrics to guide school reopening discussions (Fig. 1 on page 2), referenced in the Board’s discussions about reopening. It shows options that range from “Expanded in-person programs” to “Limited or no in-person programs.” The options represent a continuum with no definitive cut point for any decision. These metrics are important factors to consider in making determinations about the operation of school programs; however, there are additional data that need to be considered.
I have the privilege of meeting weekly with superintendents from every district in Maryland and representatives of the Maryland Department of Health, including Dr. Jinlene Chan (Acting Deputy Secretary for Public Health). I also engage in weekly phone consultations with the Frederick County Health Department Health Officer Dr. Barbara Brookmyer. These medical experts are keenly aware of the metric regarding positivity rate and number of cases, yet they also look at outbreaks in schools and what can be learned from contact tracing. These data are also critical in decisions about school operations.
Dr. Chan, Dr. Brookmyer, and many other health officers across the state have noted that outbreaks in schools, defined as two positive COVID cases that are epidemiologically linked, are typically caused by interactions outside of the school building. There is typically minimal spread within a school building. Thus, when looking at decisions for a school system, these health experts advise us to consider the metrics and outbreaks within the school system. Did outbreaks start in the school or were the cases brought into the school from another event or place? During the implementation of small group instruction, FCPS has been fortunate that only one outbreak has occurred; that outbreak was linked to a source outside the school, and quarantining eliminated any additional spread.
The other data that the health experts want to consider are the mitigating strategies available in schools. Use of facial coverings, social distancing, and frequent hand washing are critically important in minimizing spread, so we also consider the effectiveness of these strategies.
Decisions about whether to move forward with hybrid, to reduce the small groups in our buildings, or to go fully virtual will be made based on metrics, outbreak data, and the use of mitigating strategies. The discussions are always about minimizing risk for students and staff, while working to return students to school.
It is significantly harder to implement a new model of instruction than it is to step back. FCPS staff asked the Board of Education to allow for four weeks from the date of a decision to the implementation of a hybrid model. We now have the luxury of more than nine weeks before a transition to hybrid begins. Planning to implement a hybrid model will continue, with weekly monitoring of metrics and outbreaks.
I am mindful that just as FCPS staff recognized the need to plan and prepare, families need time to prepare for changes in their child’s schedule. If possible, I will notify the community two weeks ahead of any change—either moving to hybrid, staying in virtual, or modifying small group instruction. However, we have witnessed how quickly some of the metrics associated with COVID-19 can change. Working collaboratively with the Health Department, there may be a situation where it is necessary to make an important decision with little notice. I apologize for any inconvenience caused by a short notice, but I will always make the decision that the health experts tell me is prudent. There is also the possibility that the Maryland State Department of Education intervenes and makes decisions for the entire state, giving little or no advanced notice. FCPS leaders are poised to respond quickly to any state mandates.
The refrain “we are in this together” has become a tagline during the pandemic. Those words are so true and critically important now. We are relying on each other to do our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 so that we can move forward with implementing our hybrid model in January. I will continue to provide regular updates to the community via the Superintendent’s Update newsletter.
Please stay safe and healthy!
Theresa R. Alban, Ph.D.
Superintendent, Frederick County Public Schools
Booker T. Washington once said, "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome."
Together, we have overcome many obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the State Superintendent closed our schools, and we had to quickly implement a virtual “Continuity of Learning” plan for our students. The Continuity of Learning process was far from perfect; however, our FCPS families and staff pulled together and got through it as best we could. There were many lessons learned while overcoming this obstacle, lessons that would prove to be beneficial when facing the next mountain.
In June, over 194 staff and community members joined together to develop plans for surmounting two possible mountains — a fully virtual reopening of schools and a hybrid of virtual and face-to-face learning. Both of these mountains presented new paradigms for instructing 44,000 students. There were no pre-existing road maps to follow or number one best-selling books. FCPS families and staff had to develop plans for overcoming this obstacle.
When the Board voted in July to open in a fully virtual model, we began to modify our virtual plan as we received new guidance. Staff and families began to prepare for this unique opening of school. We have now been in a virtual learning model for seven weeks. We have faced several challenges, and it hasn’t been perfect; however, our teachers, support staff, administrators, parents and guardians have been relentless in their support for the students and resilient in continuously adapting and improving the model. I appreciate and value the work that everyone has done on behalf of our precious students.
Now, we stand together in front of another steep and unpredictable mountain—the transition to a hybrid model that returns more students to face-to-face instruction. Some are ready to start climbing this mountain now, and others are more cautious. I know that all of us ultimately want students returned safely to face-to-face instruction—because we know that is the best way for students to learn and connect.
We will all climb this mountain together!
However, as any mountain climber will tell you, there are things you must do prior to climbing.
Whether you are standing with us at the foot of the mountain saying climb now, or standing back saying not yet, we are all here together. We will overcome this obstacle…Together!
The 2020-2021 school year is almost here and we are excited to begin our virtual learning journey! This week schools who have not already mailed the following items will be sending important information that includes:
You will also receive an email that will include the Schoology Parent Access Code information as referenced above. This is the same code as the one you will receive in the letter mentioned above. This email will also contain links to videos to help parents/guardians understand Schoology.
Courses and course materials will be visible to students and parents/guardians in Schoology on Thursday, August 27th.
Note: The week of August 24th is the teacher training and preparation week. Courses may appear empty or have limited resources because teachers work in an "unpublished mode" before finalizing their course. Course materials will be available once classes begin.
To learn more about student navigation and parent account setup in Schoology, please visit www.fcps.org/schoology.
Please contact your child's school if you have any questions.
*Your elementary school may provide you the important technology letter during the scheduled material distribution time next week.
The Board of Education decided to open the 2020-2021 school year in a virtual only model. A number of developments have occurred over the summer that we want to make you aware of to better prepare you for the start of the school year.
Virtual learning enhancements include:
After questions and feedback from students, parents and teachers about expectations for the instructional model, we have developed important components that will be part of the instructional model moving forward.
The first component will be an increase in live, face-to-face instruction during each week. Students will have scheduled times to receive instruction from their teachers via Google Meet. Although many teachers used Google Meet to provide instruction during Continuity of Learning, all teachers will provide synchronous instruction in the Virtual Learning model. It is important that students join these instructional sessions.
We received many requests from families to record Google Meet sessions so they can be viewed at a later time. Many felt the recordings would allow students to review the instruction when they're working on assignments and help parents understand what was expected of their child. We are pleased to announce that Google Meet sessions can be recorded and will be in most cases. These recordings will then be available for review by students and families.
The Board of Education authorized small groups of students to participate in in-school face-to-face instruction. School teams will be working to identify those students needing additional face-to-face time beyond virtual learning. School staff will contact you if your child is identified for in-school, face-to-face small group instruction.
Another improvement for this year will be the use of Schoology as the only platform for course management. Parents were overwhelmingly in favor of moving all classes into a single platform as it was challenging for parents to access, understand and manage multiple platforms. We believe teachers, parents and students will see the real value of a single learning platform for course management, gradebook and communication. Day to day communications regarding course activities and assignments will occur through Schoology. Specific directions on how you can connect to Schoology will be provided in the near future. Of course, teachers will still contact parents via phone and email when that's the most appropriate form of communication.
We know that Schoology had some bumps when the entire country moved to online learning in March, as did the other major learning management systems like Blackboard, Canvas and Its Learning. In working with the company this summer, we believe there should be limited interruptions to the Schoology platform. However, we ask families to remain patient if glitches occur during the first week of school as many districts across the country will be coming online around the same time.
FCPS staff worked tirelessly with teachers over the summer to create digital resources, activities, assignments and more in Schoology to support teachers in virtual learning. Having these ready-made resources available will allow teachers to spend less time developing assignments, assessments, videos and activities and more time engaging with students, providing direct instruction, giving feedback on student work, and holding small group instruction.
In addition to digital resources being readily available for teachers, significant professional learning occurred in the spring and many teachers continued learning into the summer. FCPS will continue to provide professional learning opportunities to build teacher confidence in virtual learning.
FCPS has added new digital tools and upgraded others to improve the online learning experience for students. We are committed to successfully connecting all students virtually. If you are unable to access a device for your child or if internet connectivity is a challenge, please reach out to your child's school. We'll work to get your child connected.
Another upgrade in the virtual model will be the return to normal grading practices according to the FCPS grading regulations. This change was guided by feedback we received from teachers, parents and students. Schoology will now be the required gradebook for all teachers, regardless of grade level. Families will now be able to check the grades of their children in Schoology at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
We know some students will have difficulty participating in a virtual learning environment depending on the day. As a result, teachers will be engaging in weekly instructional planning whereby students have flexibility to complete assignments over a period of time with dates considerate of individual situations with students and families.
Sample student schedules by school level can be found here.