Dear Community and Colleagues,
Yesterday we learned that schools would be closed at a minimum until April 24, 2020. My superintendent counterparts across the state and I continue to work together with the Maryland State Department of Education to address baseline expectations of what districts will be required to provide, possible changes to graduation requirements and the impact it could have on the plans of current seniors, expectations on delivering special education services and support, requirements for grading, and many other questions that require guidance from the State. I also know that many of our families have questions that we have not been able to answer during this unprecedented closure. All 24 Maryland school districts are implementing continuity of learning that is unique to that district, driven by available technology and resources.
I want to acknowledge first that I share many of the same frustrations that I have received. We frankly have not had adequate budgetary resources to acquire sufficient technology to implement distance learning for nearly 59,000 students; our instructional delivery model was built for a traditional classroom setting and is not able to be easily replicated into an entirely digital model; staff have not been trained to teach remotely; and our Learning Management System, Canvas, has not been fully implemented across all classrooms and grade levels, requiring additional training for our elementary educators. In addition, we lost the capability to deliver content on television and video due to budget reductions.
Supporting all students. As Coronavirus continued to spread and it became imminent that we would be impacted, HCPSS staff began preparing for the possibility of distance learning. As a public education institution, we are required to provide free and appropriate educational opportunities that serve all students, including those without access to adequate technology and the over 10,000 students who receive special education services, have a 504 plan, or are English language learners. With over 8,000 staff and nearly 59,000 students, a long-term continuity of learning plan requires adequate time to train staff, refine instructional materials, develop instructional delivery models that reach all students by determining and addressing technology needs, and establish reasonable standards and expectations - all while meeting the requirements set forth by the Maryland State Department of Education. There are many who have contacted me to say that we should go ahead and put materials out and then worry about the students who may not have technology access or receive special education services. With one in four of our children living in poverty, requiring special education services or needing language supports, that is just not possible. I anticipate further information and guidance coming in the near future related to the requirements for serving students with Individualized Education Programs.
Technology. Last week, HCPSS ordered 20,000 new Chromebooks and directed staff to begin gathering over 15,000 Chromebooks from our schools so that we can equip as many students as possible who may not have a device at home. The new purchases are backordered and we do not expect to receive them all until mid-May. There is a needs survey currently underway and additional information regarding device distribution is included in the plan detailed below. These purchases were not funded in our current budget so we will be looking for savings in other areas of our budget, redeploying existing funds where possible, and continuing to monitor the possibility of state reimbursement for these purchases. It is also likely that we may need to use funds from the HCPSS unassigned fund balance. These savings were intended to reduce our historic Health Fund Deficit and we have informed the Board and the County of this possibility.
Community Support. We know that it is likely we will need additional resources beyond computers to ensure access to instruction for students. I am pleased that Bright Minds, HCPSS' educational foundation has launched a fund to collect monetary donations to help us supplement our resources so that we can more fully support students during this time. Additional information on how the community can support our efforts will be posted on the HCPSS website.
Phase 3 Overview. Phase 3 of HCPSS' Continuity of Learning plan focuses on delivering learning objectives in a variety of ways, leveraging the tools and resources that students and families have available and accounting for the supports they require. It does not seek to replicate the classroom experience, as courses and content will not be taught live at a certain time on a particular day. Rather, teachers assign course or grade-specific work that can be completed independently, guide students through a variety of learning experiences, and provide opportunities for students to ask questions and engage with the teacher remotely during scheduled online sessions.
A typical week for a secondary student will look this way:
Additional details about the HCPSS plan, including information about Phases 1 and 2 are posted on the HCPSS Continuity of Learning website. I encourage families to review these details and prepare for this next phase. Additionally, while HCPSS students will observe Spring Break as scheduled from Monday, April 6 through Monday, April 13, Spring Break has been modified for staff. School staff who by contract do not work during Spring Break will be on break from Thursday, April 9 through Monday, April 13, with staff training taking place Monday, April 6 through Wednesday, April 8. All other staff will be on Spring Break from Friday, April 10 through Monday, April 13.
Week of March 30. Families can expect to begin hearing from their teachers next week and receiving information and support for students in all grades. I ask you to recognize that in a very short amount of time, we have had to completely reconstruct our entire education delivery model. Please also recognize and support each and every educator who is about to re-engage in work while doing their part to stay healthy and care for their own families. It is critical that we implement our Continuity of Learning plan in a way that increases our likelihood for success so that it may serve all Howard County learners in a comprehensive and effective manner.
I want to thank and commend our staff members who have continued to work over the last two weeks on these plans and our operations staff who have worked diligently to disinfect and clean our buses and buildings and to operate our food distribution sites. I anticipate that nearly all schools and buses will have been completed by the end of the week, and earlier today we announced the continuation and expansion of food distribution sites. Additional information is available on the HCPSS website.
I am impressed and grateful for all of the work happening as staff members care for their own families and navigate new processes as they telework from home. Generally, all 10-, 11- and 12-month employees are continuing to be paid throughout the duration of the closure. The only employee groups that are not paid during the closure are temporary employees who have non-guaranteed hours including Substitute Teachers, Lunch and Recess Monitors, Temporary Office Clerks and Home & Hospital Teachers.
This is an unprecedented time in our nation's history. There are a number of unknowns related to the spread of the Coronavirus. The focus continues to be on the safety, health and well-being of our students, families, and staff. We appreciate your patience as we work aggressively to bridge the device access gaps experienced by our students.
Michael Martirano, Ed.D.