NEWARK – More than half of Worcester County Public Schools students are back in their classrooms this week.
On Monday, the school system welcomed back a third wave of students, bringing the total who have returned to in-person learning to 56%. All students who want to return to school this academic year are expected to do so in November. Meanwhile, students still learning virtually have struggled this week as schools countywide experienced connectivity issues.
“We are very sorry that the connectivity issues persist in our schools,” said Carrie Sterrs, the school system’s coordinator of public relations and special programs. “Please rest assured that our IT team is hard at work to pinpoint and troubleshoot this problem. We appreciate everyone’s patience as we work to resolve this issue as quickly as possible, and we will continue to keep families informed as this situation evolves.”
On Thursday, as schools experienced at least their third day in a row of connectivity issues, the school system asked parents of kids learning virtually to stay in touch with their child’s teacher and announced that Friday’s lessons for virtual students would all be asynchronous (no live teacher interaction).
“Unfortunately, our internet connectivity remains down,” a message on the school system’s website read. “We know that this is frustrating to hear, and we are equally as frustrated that we have not been able to resolve this issue in as timely a manner as we had hoped. At this time, we are working with our firewall engineers to troubleshoot this issue. Please know that any students participating in distance learning will still be able to access content (i.e. recorded lessons, assignments, etc.) at this time. We ask you to please stay in touch with your child’s teacher, as they may have specific updates related to your child’s distance learning experience at this time. Looking ahead to tomorrow, October 30, we have decided that all distance learning will be asynchronous, so please have your child log-in and participate in those activities at a time that works best for your family. Again, we are incredibly sorry that this issue persists, and we appreciate your patience and understanding.”
While the lack of internet is causing frustration for many, in a video message Monday, Superintendent Lou Taylor said that overall, the process of returning students to schools was going well.
“As you know we are currently in Stage 2 of our return with all of our schools welcoming back groups of students in waves as we reevaluate health and safety conditions every two weeks,” he said. “We are very fortunate here in Worcester County as our efforts to reinforce our safety protocols have proven to be widely successful thus far, leading our county’s COVID rates to remain low.”
Taylor credited students’ efforts to monitor for symptoms, wear face coverings, physical distance and wash their hands frequently. He said students who returned to school Oct. 26 represented the third wave of kids to do so.
“As our team forecasted this wave serves as an important tipping point in our responsible return,” he said. “As our Stage 2 roll in continues we anticipate that our next waves of students to potentially return in November could see all students wishing to return to in person learning back in our school buildings.”
At Buckingham Elementary School (BES), parents of kids who hadn’t already returned to school were contacted earlier this month and given the option of having their children return Oct. 26 or Nov. 9 or to remain in virtual learning through the entire school year.
“BES will utilize a hybrid model for our virtual students who are remaining at home for the remainder of the school year,” a letter to parents reads. “This means that virtual students will log on to ZOOM through Schoology and be an active member of their “teacher of record’s” face to face classroom. Asynchronous work will be completed during designated times. Each classroom will have between one and five students joining virtually with their face to face class.”
In his message to parents, Taylor said the Oct. 26 wave of students was a tipping point but that the school system would not in fact be using the “A week, B week” model outlined in the return plan.
“Due to the incredible planning efforts and ingenuity of our school leaders and teachers we do not intend to move to the alternating week model,” Taylor said. “At this point that model would serve as more of a backward step in our recovery efforts and could possibly cause chaos and confusion for our families which is in no one’s best interest. I want to reassure you that our schools are planning with great detail how to use every inch of our school facilities to house all those students wanting to return while still observing the physical distancing guidelines from the CDC.”
Taylor acknowledged however that distancing would be impacted on school buses as more kids returned to school.
“We will be shifting to our one student per seat model in order to accommodate this increase in students,” he said. “We realize this possesses a higher risk as we are not able to observe the recommended six-foot physical distancing, but we will remain as diligent as possible to keep our buses safe for all our students.”
While Taylor credits the school system community for a successful return to schools during the pandemic, some parents have used social media to express their frustration with what they consider a lack of transparency.
“Why is it not public knowledge that groups of students/staff have had to be sent home from SES, BES, OCES and SDHS?” one person wrote on the school system’s Facebook page. “Wicomico County schools, Accomack County schools, Dorchester county schools, Worcester Prep, seaside Christian and Salisbury school all made their closures/cases/quarantines public knowledge. Why is WCPS not doing the same?”
When asked about that, Sterrs said the situations referenced in Worcester County schools “are all related to COVID-like illness.”
“None of these instances resulted in a positive case of COVID-19,” she said. “Second, the neighboring counties that this post refers to reported positive cases of COVID-19, and, as a result, a school(s) were closed or shifted to a virtual/distance learning format. Worcester remains committed to keeping our school system appropriately informed, and when such notification is warranted, we will certainly do so.”
She said the social media comments were an indication of just how proactive schools were being during the pandemic.
“Our protocols call for the exclusion of students or staff that exhibit symptoms of COVID-like illness and contact tracing immediately begins following that initial report, which results in the exclusion of any close contacts,” she said. “As you know, these symptoms (cough, sore throat, congestion, headache, etc.) are symptoms of many illnesses, and these exclusions are often resolved in a diagnosis that is not COVID-19 (i.e. allergies, sinus infection, etc.), allowing for those close contacts to return to school the next day and the ill student or staff member to return after their illness has been resolved.”
She praised the “remarkable job” students and staff were doing in distancing, handwashing and using face coverings.
“Strictly following these practices truly minimizes if not eliminates exposure in our schools,” she said. “This has resulted in Worcester County not having to close entire classrooms, grade levels, or schools due to exposure.”