Public school maintains its distance; private schools go with in-person classes

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Worcester Preparatory School Development Office Assistant Courtney Baeurle takes junior Myranda Beebe’s temperature upon arriving on campus on the first day of school for high schoolers, Tuesday.

(Sept. 4, 2020) Thousands of Worcester County students will return to school on Tuesday, but, because of coronavirus concerns, it will be weeks before most of them will be able to enter the classroom.

In response to Gov. Larry Hogan’s Aug. 27 announcement that Maryland schools could safely reopen, Worcester County Public Schools Superintendent Lou Taylor recorded a video addressed to students and their families to assure them that the plans for returning to school virtually on Sept. 8 have not changed.

“This is due to the fact that our model is right in line with what the governor and state superintendent outlined in their remarks,” Taylor said. “In fact, the governor’s remarks further affirm that Worcester’s ‘Responsible Return’ model is one that places a high value on bringing students back into the classroom as quickly and as safely as possible.”

Approximately 6,630 students enrolled in Worcester County Public Schools will begin the 2020-21 academic year with distance learning after Labor Day for three weeks.

Enrollment will be finalized when school counselors return this week, said Carrie Sterrs, the coordinator of public relations and special programs.

The county school system anticipates moving into Stage Two of its recovery plan on Sept. 28, “which would begin the process of phasing students back into the classroom, adhering to the health and safety protocols developed in tandem with our local health officials,” Taylor said.

Tier 2 and Tier 3 level students will be brought back first in small groups that comply with each school’s classroom size.

Transportation for students will resume on Sept. 28 as well.

“We have to look at some recommendations by the state about the number of kids that can be on the buses and where they sit and the social distancing there as well,” Taylor said.

He added that all students will be provided transportation, even if that requires multiple runs because of social distancing guidelines.

SDHS

Students at Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin received iPads on Aug. 26, for the upcoming school year.

“Our plan from there is every two weeks reevaluate where we are and if everything stays like it is today … we’ll aggressively start bringing more kids back every two weeks,” Taylor said.

With in-person instruction, students, faculty and staff will be required to wear face coverings. In addition, there will be frequent breaks for handwashing and social distancing of at least six feet will be enforced, he said.

“We will continue to clean and sanitize at the end of each school day [and] during the school day whenever possible,” Taylor added.

Families will be given the option to keep their children in virtual learning when the schools transition to in-person instruction.

Public school students are expected to finish the school year on June 15, with June 16-18 designated as inclement weather makeup days.

However, with virtual learning as an option for when school is closed for any reason, it is unclear whether makeup days are necessary.

 “It is an option now, and as we move deeper into virtually learning over the years, we’ll be able to do that … So, as of right now, we’d probably make them up,” said Taylor, who is a 1978 graduate of Stephen Decatur High School. “Like everything else, it’s different times, and we’ll cross that bridge when that bridge is handed to us.”

Taylor served as the principal of Stephen Decatur High School from 1995 to 2012. Now, he is entering his fifth year as superintendent of the county school system.

“It is paramount that our schools stay safe and clean for our kids and all our employees as well,” he said.

The county school system has nearly 1,200 employees, about 58 percent of whom are teachers. School officials said there are 696 educators, including 37 newly hired teachers.

Educators returned for four days of preparation and in-service activities on Monday.

“Teachers are having to work extremely hard to prepare for those virtually and in-house or in classroom learning,” Taylor said. “So, it kind of doubles what they have to do, but we’re all in this business because we want to help … we want to do what is best for our kids, our families and our community.”

Teachers take extensive measures to meet the services needed by the students to enhance the learning process.

“Learning only takes place at a maximum level when you show that you care,” Taylor said.

He added that the Board of Education and the Worcester County Commissioners, whose budget funds the school system, have developed a strong partnership with school officials that has helped with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have to embrace the change,” Taylor said. 

For more information about Worcester County Public Schools, call 410-632-5000 or visit worcesterk12.org.

Private schools in the county will also begin classes on Tuesday but with in-person instruction.

At Worcester Preparatory School in Berlin, all grade levels will return to campus for a full day on Tuesday. Students began this week with a staggered schedule: high school students returned on Tuesday, middle school students returned on Wednesday and the lower school students returned on Thursday.

Nearly 440 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade are enrolled in Worcester Preparatory School for the 2020-21 academic year, said new Head of School Dr. John McDonald.

McDonald moved to Berlin with his family from Ticonderoga, New York, where he most recently served as Superintendent of Schools in the Ticonderoga Central School District. 

“I started my career in independent schools in South Alabama, and I spent 25 years in public schools (19 as superintendent),” he said. “To be frank, I was getting very frustrated with the direction that public education policy was headed. There were blanket decisions being made without consideration to the local needs that each community has, which are different across different-sized communities, in New York state especially.”

McDonald holds an undergraduate degree from Washington & Lee University, a master’s degree from Northeastern University, and a doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers College in Educational Leadership. 

McDonald said the Mallard Strong Task Force has been meeting weekly since the spring “to develop protocols that we have published and sent out to all our families in terms of maintaining social distancing and wearing facial coverings.”

According to a recent press release from the school, “The Task Force carefully formulated policies and procedures revolving around safety, including protocols for scheduling, physical distancing, health screening, daily cleaning/sanitizing, protective equipment, transportation and the appropriate use of common areas.”

Throughout the year, the Task Force will continue to coordinate with national and regional independent school associations while reviewing information and recommendations from the Governor’s Office, Worcester County Health Department and CDC, the release said.

The release also stated that following successful pre-season workouts, all fall athletics—cross country, field hockey, golf, soccer, and volleyball—will begin and compete on a modified basis in the Eastern Shore Independent Athletic Conference (ESIAC). 

“Our Mallard Strong Task Force has worked tirelessly for months to create a safe environment for our Worcester Prep families,” McDonald said. “The energy in our hallways was palpable as teachers returned to setup their new physically-distanced classrooms.  I, too, am excited to welcome everyone back to campus in order to provide an exceptional educational experience with as much normalcy as possible.”

Diane Brown, the marketing and public relations associate at Worcester Preparatory School, said the school did not have any personnel changes of administration or faculty to report at this time.

“However, it is always our goal to maintain our 10:1 student/teacher ratio,” Brown said.

The year will end on June 9 for the lower school, and the middle and upper schools will finish on June 11.

For more information about Worcester Preparatory School, call 410-641-3575 or visit worceesterprep.org.

Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, a private institution at 11242 Racetrack Road in Berlin, has slightly more than 200 students returning to campus on Tuesday with accommodations.

“Because our population is on the smaller side, we are able to socially distance everybody,” said Amanda Evans, the director of admissions and advancement for the school. “They will, of course, be wearing masks when they’re inside the building. We’re going to be doing a lot more fun stuff outside.”

Evans said there are about 25 full-time educators, including teacher’s assistants. She added that there have been no new hires for the 2020-21 academic year at this time.

A family has donated plastic shields for all of the teachers and administrators to wear in addition to their masks. The shields will allow teachers to display more facial expressions—while practicing social distancing—to help the younger students who are learning to read and developing speech.

As for administrative changes, Kathleen Manns was hired as the principal around the middle of April after substituting for the former principal, Evans said.

Prior to her new role, Manns was a retired assistant principal from Wilmington, Delaware.

“We’re excited to start the school year, and we’re taking every precaution,” Evans said. “We’ve worked so hard to make sure that everything is done properly to ensure the safety of the students and the teachers and staff. We’re getting excited to see our students in person.”

Students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade are expected to finish the school year on June 18 as part of a 180-day school year.

For more information, call 410-208-1600 or visit mostblessedsacramentschool.com.

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