Local School Officials Explain Virtual Learning Decisions

Local School Officials Explain Virtual Learning Decisions
All virtual indications are pictured on the Worcester County Board of Education's school status webpage this week. File Image

NEWARK – Worcester County’s public schools returned to distance learning this week as COVID-19 positivity rates jumped.

Parents were informed late Sunday afternoon that Worcester County Public Schools would halt in-person instruction and would instead offer virtual learning Nov. 16-30. Officials hope to reopen schools Dec. 1.

“We will be continuing to monitor the community statistics regarding COVID-19, and we hold out hope that we will be able to move forward once again into phase two of our Responsible Return model on Dec. 1,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said during Tuesday’s Worcester County Board of Education meeting. “We want our school system community to know that as we are watching these metrics closely we will continue to communicate to you as quickly as possible when our decisions are made.”

In a presentation to the board, Lauren Williams, the school system’s coordinator of school health services, said the return to virtual instruction was made after a jump in COVID-19 positivity rates.

“The numbers went up very quickly over the last two weeks,” she said.

Williams said that when the positivity rate was above 5% and the new case rate exceeded 15 per 100,000, state guidance changed. Rather than hybrid and partial in-person programs, the governor’s school recovery plan calls for “limited or no in-person programs.”

“The really important metric is when we get higher than 5% positivity rate and higher than 15 per 100,000,” Williams said.

She also talked about the school system’s procedures for both COVID-19 cases as well as instances of COVID-like illness. She stressed that the school system worked closely with the Worcester County Health Department when positive COVID-19 cases occurred. A packet presented to the school board this week can be found here.

“Everyone can rest assured we’re doing a very thorough and broad investigation,” she said.

Taylor praised Williams for her efforts in monitoring the pandemic locally.

“Many would think that Lauren is the one saying shutdown, shutdown shutdown,” he said. “She’s not. As a matter of fact on Monday, she talked me out of things that I was probably going a little harsh on about shutting down … she doesn’t have the mindset of when the word COVID pops up close the schools. I appreciate that. She looks at a broad picture.”

Taylor asked community members to do their part in stopping the spread of the virus.

“We truly have made remarkable progress in our schools to bring back students safely in our classrooms but as you saw over the past week as we announced several closures, this virus is real,” Taylor said. “It is in our community and we need to protect ourselves and one another from exposures whenever possible. I wanted to stress today to all of our community the role they play in our schools being able to welcome students back to in person learning.”

He stressed the importance of wearing a face covering, maintaining physical distance, handwashing and not holding gatherings.

“We know this is hard and we know that everyone is tired, including myself, of COVID and all the hardships it has brought us,” he said. “But I also know what WC is made of. I truly know what this county is made of because I’ve lived here all my life. We are strong-willed and protective of our community. So let’s stand together. Let’s start today like only we can and throw all our efforts into reducing this pandemic to a thing of the past.”

Wicomico County Public Schools this week also announced its return to all virtual learning in response to concerning trends in community health metrics.

On Tuesday, the Wicomico County Board of Education unanimously approved a plan to temporarily roll back in-person hybrid learning and return to all virtual learning through Dec. 18. If health metrics improve, in-person hybrid learning will resume on Jan. 4 for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade and Feb. 2 for high school students.

With a new case rate of 27.16 per 100,000 and a positivity rate of 5.91% on Nov. 15, the school system reports Wicomico County’s numbers are well outside the metrics that would allow the school system to continue with in-person instruction.

“While we know this news will not be welcomed by all, the return to fully virtual instruction will support the health and safety of students, staff and families while providing robust, consistent virtual instruction in the challenging weeks ahead,” Superintendent Donna Hanlin said. “As a school system, we have enjoyed seeing the faces of our youngest learners in the classroom, and we are disappointed not to be able to continue with the steady roll-out of our Return to School Action Plan. But we realize this pause is necessary.”

For more information on the school system’s return to all virtual learning, visit www.wcboe.org.

“For our students and staff, safety is the key,” Board Vice Chairman Gene Malone said. “We’re doing this for the safety of everyone involved in our schools, and the safety of everyone in our community.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.