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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