BERLIN – Though the county’s public schools are currently providing instruction virtually, officials are planning to begin bringing students back to school buildings Jan. 4.
Worcester County Public Schools Superintendent Lou Taylor, who was appointed in 2016 and recently agreed to negotiate a new four-year contract with the school board, talked about plans for a gradual return to in-person instruction—as well as the challenges associated with operating schools during the COVID-19 pandemic — with The Dispatch on Tuesday.
Q. Worcester County Public Schools is back in stage one of its reopening plan until Jan. 4, 2021. School administrations are currently calling around to students in the first wave to return on Jan. 4. When do you think the call will be made on if schools will actually re-open to in-person instruction then? If the statistics don’t change, is there concern that date will have to be pushed back?
A. There’s always a concern. Every day I’m concerned about the metrics, I’m concerned about the safety and welfare of our kids and our employees. We will be taking a look at a variety of things, the metrics being one of them. And just to see when we feel that it’s safe. We are going through right now with our staffs, a fairly intense training program for them. And that’s all out of wanting them to be comfortable so that when we start back, we’re practicing good [safety measures], we’re making good decisions about wearing masks all the time, social distancing, handwashing and hygiene, to make sure that that is at the top of our to do list every single day, as we work through the buildings with the people inside of our buildings.
And it’s my hope that by us doing this, even with the metrics maybe a little higher than they should be and again, we don’t know what that cut off is at this point, the recommendation cut off is 5% and 15 cases per 100,000. That’s what the state has said all across this state, but there’s been no recommendation that you can’t put kids back in school with those numbers.
Q. So that’s not a strict thing then? Even if they were slightly above that, you could still bring students back?
A. No, it’s not strict, it’s not a directive. It’s something that’s kind of put out there for us to keep an eye on. I also work very closely with the health department and get their feedback as we’re making decisions to bring our kids back as well. There are suggested measurements out there, but we try to do what’s best for our kids, given all the circumstances that surround this pandemic.
And also we have a number of folks who want our kids back in school. We’ve met with parents this entire time. We’re trying to make our buildings as safe as possible and have our staff feel as safe as possible so that I can get kids back into our buildings. And it’s my hope that Jan. 4, as I sit here today with you, will be that day we will start with the first step of bringing kids back.
Q. The governor seems to not be taking a statewide look at schools, as far as mandating virtual learning or closures. Do you support this approach?
A. I’m a strong supporter of local control, very strong supporter of local control. We certainly listen to and respect what the governor says. And we certainly listen to and respect what our state department of education says, but I’m a big proponent as superintendent here, of local control. And so we’ve been given that throughout this process and throughout a lot of things that we do in education.
And I am grateful to the governor and the state department of education who allow us to have local control. We have an elected seven-member school board who also plays a part in this, our county elected officials. There’s so many groups that are part of what we do, and certainly our local elected officials from the board of education, our county commissioners are great proponents of how we operate our school system.
Q. I know you touched on this a little bit already, but the in-person COVID trainings that are taking place this month for teachers, can you elaborate a little bit on those, hat those involve and why you wanted to do those?
A. Yeah. One of the things that my team felt was vitally important is that we’ve never been able to sit down with our staffs and all of our schools and to go over some important points for them, so that we will prepare them for the return. We’ve said, we want kids brought back. We want to be back in our buildings, but we need to give them tools to help them and to assist them with being able to bring our kids back in.
And certainly it goes around those requirements of social distancing, wearing masks, handwashing, so forth and so on. One of the tough things for teachers, our teachers do a fantastic job in educating our kids. And one of the things as a teacher that you learn as you’re going through your teacher training is close proximity to kids and being in close proximity.
Everything that they we’re trained to do, we’re asking them to do the opposite and stay six feet apart from kids. And that’s a challenge. So through these trainings, we are providing information, we’re providing scenarios so they can see how firsthand this can be done when they go into a school. And so I think one of the things that I wanted do as superintendent, as we prepare for this, really what I call the second round of bringing our kids back, is to give our teachers the tools and the necessary information to do a job and to keep themselves and our kids as safe as possible.
Q. And like you just said, the county’s teachers have been really challenged throughout this and the state teacher’s union wants the state superintendent to mandate all schools in Maryland remain closed until the end of January, or at least the end of the semester. Are you concerned about teacher morale here? And do you feel the state teacher union’s proposal is the right way to go?
A. The state teacher’s union is a broad organization that encompasses all 24 counties and every county operates differently. We have a great relationship with our teachers’ association. My leadership team and myself, we work with them in collaboration to make decisions about our schools. And we support, obviously when they have concerns, we listen, we take them seriously, we try to collaborate with their leadership to make sure that we provide an environment as much as possible that is safe and conducive to learning for our kids.
And they are a big part of that process. We do not close them out at all. Everybody has individual feelings about this pandemic, and certainly as a society, we all feel differently about it. But again, I appreciate that although there’s a state organization, local control plays a part in our decision-making and it’s really about building good relationships with your teachers association of which I think I have expressed since day one of my superintendency, that communication and relationship building is the most vital, is so vitally important as we move our school system forward. And that could never be more true than it is right now, as we’re dealing with a pandemic.
Q. In one of your messages last month, you talked about busing concerns when kids do come back. Could you talk a little bit about what changes are going to need to be made there? Are you hoping more parents will bring their kids to school to ease crowding on buses? What are you looking at as far as busing?
A. Well, we are in the process of working through that with our school leadership teams. My assistant superintendent who is in charge of transportation is working with our transportation office. We’re working with the individual schools. We want to make sure kids are able to get to school. So as we work through that process, we have, I have said, if there is parents who can bring their kids to school, we certainly want them to do that if they can.
And I have talked to some individually who have said to me, “Lou, if transportation’s an issue, I have no problem bringing my child to school.” So we’re looking at all the points that we need to stress as we build the transportation process of getting kids here. It is a concern because again, we’re going to try to follow the social distancing on our buses, which limits the number of kids that can ride a bus.
But we have several options like multiple runs, for example, to make sure we get kids to school. And yes, if there are parents or families who could transport their kids to school, that normally don’t do that, that will be beneficial to us in getting those kids back into school as much as possible.
Q. And actually, I should have asked this earlier, but are you looking at a certain percentage of kids coming back on Jan. 4? What’s your goal there?
A. Well, we’re looking at need. We’re looking at our kids who have the most need we want back as early as possible. School is a safe haven for all children. School’s a safe haven for me as a superintendent. And I liked to exercise how I felt as a kid when I went to school, and I came from a great home life, but I also know I wanted to be safe when I left my parents for seven and a half hours a day.
And also it’s a place where we provide meals for kids who may have some issues with three meals a day. So those kids who have the needs of being here are going to be given attention first. We also have a need for internet connectability in parts of our county. And although we’re doing a great job with getting hotspots and things of that nature to assist our kids and families, we did still have some individuals out there that may have some difficult times with the internet connection. And we certainly consider that a need as well.
The process that we will follow to bring kids back will be based strictly on need, and we will go through the stages of bringing them back based on what needs are most important will be stage one. And then those who have the second level of need will be stage two, and so forth and so on. Because again, keep in mind, schools are safe havens, and I want them to be safe havens as we go through the year, even in a normal year, but right now, as we’re faced with this pandemic, it’s even more important that we pay attention to the need of our kids and the needs of our families in order to bring our kids back to school.
Q. You mentioned connectivity. Can you give an update on the connectivity issues that were a big problem this fall for the schools?
A. Right now, everything is good. As I talk to you today, we’ve got our issue worked out. We’re going to continue to monitor our infrastructure here in Worcester County Public Schools. None of us expected to be teaching kids throughout this country the way we’re teaching them now. And as we go through, it gives us a good chance as a school system to reevaluate our technology.
There’s really two parts of technology. It’s the devices, and our board of education and county commissioners stepped up last year and gave us great devices to use. And the second part is the infrastructure. And so we are now doing just a thorough check on our infrastructure to see where we might want to improve as time goes on.
And that’s not just based on the pandemic, but that’s in general, as we continue to monitor that and find ways that we can improve. And as we do an analysis of our infrastructure here in Worcester County, we will be making recommendations, once I get those recommendations on my desk, to our board and to our county commissioners, that there might be some room for improvement as we move our school system forward, not just during the pandemic, but as we move our school system forward for years to come.
Q. Now, I know everyone’s always talking about bandwidth. But that wasn’t your entire problem, right? I mean you don’t expect the connectivity issues to start back up when kids go back to school?
A. No, we’re not expecting that. That wasn’t our issue. We’re not expecting that to be a problem when kids do come back. But again, we think we’ve identified a few small adjustments that we’ve had to make, and we have people and I’ve had vendors in here giving us some support and advice as we move forward. I feel pretty confident. I feel pretty confident it’s not going to snow today, but that doesn’t mean I have control over it.
And the same with our technology, we feel very confident with our staff, with our leadership and our technology that we’re in a good place right now. But again, on Jan. 4 or Feb. 10 or March 18, I don’t know what could happen, but I feel certain that when those issues do arise, that we are ready and prepared to make the needed adjustments we need to keep us moving forward. And I think our team did a great job in getting some things adjusted for us when we dealt with a small problem a month or so ago.
Q. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about or that you want people to know?
A. No. I appreciate all the community support that they’re giving our schools. And I just am grateful that I work in Worcester County Public Schools where our community, our elected officials, stand behind us and support what we do each and every day to educate and to keep our kids and staff safe.