Dorchester County public schools to open with virtual learning

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — The Dorchester County Board of Education, following the recommendation of Superintendent Dave Bromwell, and voted unanimously last week to have schools open with virtual learning. They will use a phased-in approach, beginning with virtual learning for all students and moving to subsequent phases as it becomes safe to do so.

The decision comes amid increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Dorchester and around the nation.

“I’ve been on several calls with superintendents and we’re all very concerned about the uptick in COVID-19 in our data, and what that’s doing to the community,” Mr. Bromwell said during the board meeting, which was held online. “I think we need to pull back and be much more cautious.”

Mr. Bromwell had said in an interview on WHCP radio on July 15 that six Maryland counties had already opted for online instruction in the fall. Then on July 21, Somerset County decided to start online, the first Eastern Shore district to do so.

Maryland Superintendent of Public Schools Dr. Karen B. Salmon spoke in Annapolis Thursday, saying that while she recognized that in-person instruction and the classroom environment are irreplaceable, “The imminent safety and health of students and staff must, and always will be, the first priority.” In further remarks, she said county boards of education would have flexibility in making decisions on how and when to begin instruction.

“Some systems have begun to lay out a path to begin the year all-virtual, and some plan to move forward with a ‘hybrid’ approach,” she said. “Our job is to help systems succeed and keep staff and students safe, regardless of which path they choose.”

Board members President Philip Rice, Vice President Laura Layton, Glenn Bramble, LeOtha Hull and Sheri Hubbard were in favor of the move. Classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 31.

Dorchester County Board of Education members President Philip W. Rice (District 3), Vice President H. Laura Layton (District 5), Glenn L. Bramble (District 1), LeOtha N. Hull (District 2) and Sheri R. Hubbard (District 4) voted to accept Superintendent Bromwell’s recommendation. Instruction is scheduled to begin Aug. 31.

Mr. Bromwell told board members during Thursday’s meeting that the situation will monitored as the school year progresses.

“We’re going to constantly stay in tune with what’s going on in our county, what’s going on with our stakeholders, what’s going on with our parents, what are the numbers, what are health officials saying, are we ready for the next step,” the superintendent said.

He also clarified the format online instruction would take.

“What the community needs to understand when they hear us say, ‘virtual learning,’ that’s going to be very different from what they were used to from March through June with our Continuity of Learning Plans,” Mr. Bromwell said. “We have ‘Schoology’ now, ready to go, a learning management system. So our teachers will be able to communicate more with students.”

Mr. Rice asked, “Would our special needs students be the ones you are talking about trying to get into the schools?”

“They would be one of our targeted groups,” Mr. Bromwell said. Other groups would be English learners and students taking courses from the Dorchester Career and Technology Center (DCTC).

As for those from DCTC, Mr. Bromwell said, “There are minutes involved, that they need to have to be certified. So yes, all those special groups would be considered at different times.”

Mr. Rice asked, “Does that mean the end of fall sports?”

“All the superintendents on the Shore agree that if we are virtual, we should not be starting athletic programs,” Mr. Bromwell said.

The vote then took place, after which Mr. Bromwell said, “I know right now, there are going to be mixed emotions about what our plan is.”

He said that after the July 9 Board of Education meeting, and the radio interview, he had heard from many parents. Online comments on the subject touched on issues of child care, as working parents wondered how to earn their pay while having to provide child care for young students studying at home. Others were concerned about families that have poor internet connections, or none at all.

“I get it,” Mr. Bromwell said. “I understand the parents.”

There are 12 institutions in the district: two high schools, a career and technology center, two middle schools, six elementary schools and a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade school. There are approximately 5,000 students in the district.

The Board of Education’s website is found at dcps.k12.md.us.

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