District 4 Board of Education Candidate Q&A: HCPSS response to the Coronavirus Crisis

Elections are such an importance part of our democracy, especially in times of crisis as we turn to our elected officials all throughout government for leadership. The Maryland primary to elect new Board of Education members (and the Democratic nominee for president) is now rescheduled for Tuesday June 2. To help local residents learn about the candidates now that in-person campaigning has stopped, The Merriweather Post together with the Scott E. Blog are organizing a Q&A series with the candidates. If you have a question for this series, please submit the form on the D4 Q&A website to be considered for an upcoming week.

Howard County public schools are officially closed through at least April 24, though schools will likely continue to be closed well beyond that date. The abrupt health crisis has upended all of our lives and put a sudden mid-year stop to 59,000 Howard County public school student's school year. It's an enormous challenge for all school leaders, especially the Board of Education. To continue the Q&A series with the candidates for the District 4 seat, I asked the four candidates (including the two current board members) about HCPSS's response to coronavirus.

Question: Given the unprecedented crisis we find ourselves in, what are your biggest concerns for Howard County public education in both the short-term (while schools are closed, for however long that lasts) and long-term (once school resume, at whatever point that happens).  What steps do you support HCPSS taking to address these concerns?


Below are their responses, presented in alphabetical order by last name.


Kirsten Coombs

(Website | Facebook | Twitter)


My biggest concern is always ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of our students and families above all else. My students and family, like many, are feeling uncertain and worried about the pandemic and its impacts, and it is important for us as a community to come together, maintain empathy and patience, and focus on what matters most. Our school system is the center of the Howard County community for so many of us. I want to recognize the tremendous efforts that our staff, educators, families, and community members are putting toward our response to this unprecedented situation. I am proud of the steps that HCPSS has taken to initiate and expand our meal distribution sites for families who struggle with food and economic insecurity, and I would like to see this continue throughout the duration of school closures. Our educators and staff will also continue to provide mental health resources to discuss the anxiety that our children (and parents) are experiencing.
Having said that, maintaining and resuming normal routines -- including education --  is an important part of promoting student well-being, and there are steps we can take to provide improved instructional resources and guidance to families in the short-term. I believe ensuring some level of instruction that keeps our children on the right track in their learning continuum is our responsibility as a school system.However, a fully remote model is not a replacement for in-person instruction, particularly for students who need additional academic support and our youngest students who rely on adult interactions for learning. Providing broad virtual instruction has never been done in Howard County schools and requires us to purchase additional devices for students, plan for curriculum implementation, and educate our staff on delivering instruction online. I advocated for a Technology Survey before Day 1 of the Closure to collect more specific data on students' technology needs. While this has been implemented, I have expressed concerns about some of the methodology.
As we move toward virtual instruction over the coming weeks, I would like to see improvements in the communication of our progress with families. I would like to update the delivery of our optional instructional materials to be more structured with daily, lesson-oriented materials that are organized in one place and are easily accessible to our families. These resources should also be available in hard copy form at our meal distribution sites and disseminated online via text, email, and our website.  I want to increase parental supports with adequate guidance to support learning at home, with remote support, instruction, and guidance from our educators. I have made these recommendations and requests to our Central Office staff and will continue to have ongoing conversations with them and my colleagues on the Board. Additionally, we need to conduct virtual IEP/504 meetings as soon as possible with families to review goals and devise amended implementation of instruction supports as required by law. (These contacts are being planned right now, and educators/administrators will be reaching out to all students in the next week.)  While the US Department of Education has issued guidance regarding Special Education, no laws or regulations have been changed and we need to ensure we are meeting the needs of children. I have also asked that there are periodic assessments of our ability to meet IEP service hours under this new delivery model. All of these short-term actions need to be carried out in close collaboration with the State Department of Education (MSDE) to ensure we are meeting instructional requirements and following educational laws and procedures. Over the next several weeks, we will also need to work closely with MSDE and the state to determine how to evaluate and provide credit 4th quarter instruction and credit attainment for graduation requirements and AP courses, in the event that we do not return to school this year, as well as obtain waivers for standardized testing. (This last piece appears to be near completion.) We cannot make these decisions hastily, independently, or in a vacuum. My hope is that by continuing to improve the delivery of our short-term response to instruction during COVID-19, taking a methodical but responsive approach, we will be better positioned to have a more robust virtual instruction model going forward in the long-term -- something that is long overdue in HCPSS. Once schools are scheduled to open and normal operations to resume in the long-term (if we do not return for the remainder of the school year), we will need to plan for additional supports to bridge 4th quarter instruction that was missed and address gaps in learning. We will also need to allow adequate time for students, families, staff, and educators to transition back to school buildings and respond to their questions and concerns. Given that we are purchasing additional devices for students to engage in virtual learning, we will need to evaluate impacts to this year's and next year's budget to identify cost savings in other areas. In the short-term, this also involves us advocating at the county, state, and federal levels for emergency funding. As we begin to resume normal activities, I would like to see the Board and administration engage in a debriefing to identify the challenges and successes in our response to COVID-19, and our plans for improving the process in the future if the situation were to arise again so we can be better prepared for the unexpected. As I noted earlier, this is an uncertain time and our educational system is a major ecosystem for Howard County. This struggle will present many challenges over the coming months for all of us in unexpected ways. As an optimist, I generally try to hope that these challenges will make us stronger. Please contact me at kirsten@kirstencoombs.org if you have additional questions or concerns. I look forward to hearing from you.


Matt Levine

(Website | Facebook)

In the short term, I am very concerned about our kids falling behind the rest of the State.  Unfortunately, our Superintendent, Dr. Martirano, has not shown the leadership I had expected from him during this crisis. When it became clear in early March that schools would be affected, I had expected that that the Superintendent was working on a number of contingency plans - which is what he communicated to the public during meetings, that he was conducting “tabletop” exercises with his staff - so that if schools had to close, the administration would be ready. 
When the announcement came on March 12 that schools would be closed for 2 weeks, HCPSS gave a 2 page sheet on what the kids could work on during the break, but that it was not mandatory or going to be graded.  For me, I believe it was abundantly clear that due to the severity and spread of COVID that the schools would need to be closed for more than 2 weeks. So, at this point I was worried about the longer term impacts of this break, but I did try to give HCPSS the benefit of the doubt that the Administration staff would be working on a contingency plan during that two week closure period. 
Instead, I was shocked and saddened to see that on March 25 -- 12 days after the closure announcement-- the Administration had failed to come up with a solid plan to start distance learning for Elementary School kids until April 24 (and only if schools are closed beyond April 24).  At a minimum, this means the Elementary Schools kids will have been off for 6 weeks. This worries me as I fear this delay will add to the achievement gap. Truth is, Howard County families with the motivation and means will be educating their kids during that 6 week gap, leaving the most vulnerable students and families in our system to fend for themselves. Uneven access to technology in Howard County has been given as the excuse - but this is a red herring: we have already seen that even Baltimore City schools - arguably the system with the toughest challenges to overcome- have taken steps to distribute paper packets where they have their meal sites as well as providing their materials online, and Anne Arundel County schools are using public access channels to televise school subject lectures. So while we probably have a more “wired” county than the average (in the last census we had only about 7% of the county without internet access), HCPSS failed to provide any meaningful instruction, whether review materials or new. We have a full office of curriculum staff as well as emergency preparedness staff, and it feels like the messaging we are receiving is that they are starting from scratch.  What is crystal clear is that other jurisdictions around us -all faced with the same challenges, state requirements and crisis timelines -managed to put a contingency plan in place much more quickly to meet the needs of their students. I fail to see why HCPSS continued to delay. 
As for the long term, I am definitely worried that this crisis has revealed just how deeply troubled the current HCPSS administration is, especially compared with our neighbor jurisdictions, who seemed to be much more adaptable and responsive to the crisis.  As most parents can probably attest, unfortunately HCPSS has a huge issue with SPED which needs to be fixed. Over the last year we heard our current BOE say that they were committed to “equity” over and over again, but I sincerely doubt that they have a shared understanding of what that means. It is clear to me that we will not achieve equity for Howard County students through redistricting -- essentially busing kids around to make the test scores look better and not truly looking at the drivers behind the achievement gap, like adding support for kids in special education programs and for english language learners. In June of 2019, the current Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office had already identified the drivers of the achievement gap: attendance, behavior, access to well-rounded curriculum, and course performance -- none of these are addressed by the redistricting plans and it is clear that the Administration did not examine our county data points to discern whether the achievement gaps would be addressed by such a plan (it won’t).  Truth is, HCPSS has been chronically ignoring our kids with special needs at all schools, and this has been true for many years.  When you compare HCPSS’s statistics with surrounding counties (10% vs. 14.5%), it appears that we are not doing an adequate job of identifying which students need support.  This lack of meaningful identification, coupled with the disparities between families who have the means to hire outside support vs. families who do not, is truly where the current system fails our kids. We MUST fix special education or we will never fix the achievement gap.
Turning to the recent COVID crisis, though, has also highlighted that HCPSS needs to invest in IT systems and stop cutting technology education, and instead look to expand Technology instructional tools throughout the curriculum. Clearly, access to and training in responsive IT tools and systems is also an equity issue in HCPSS. Had we not been caught so flat footed with respect to IT investments and training, perhaps the system would have been better prepared to quickly deliver instructional materials through distance learning tools.


Jen Mallo

(Website | Facebook | Twitter)


In times of crisis schools are about more than just academics. In the current coronavirus pandemic, our school system’s priorities have included immediately establishing a system for food distribution to provide food for students experiencing hunger. Additionally, we have prioritized delivering mental health supports normally provided during the school day for those students experiencing personal crises. I fully support prioritizing the provision of food and mental health supports to our students. With more than 22% of students receiving Free and Reduced Meals (about 13,000 students) every ‘normal’ school day—we need to be able to step up in times of crisis and feed children while school is out. I have advocated to the administration for the expansion of the food “grab-and-go” program to additional sites, alternative hours, and I support innovative delivery models.
Schools need to contribute to the overall health of the community. I support the long-term closure of our schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Our students and staff need to be part of the strategy of flattening the growth curve and not spreading the virus. As we cannot possibly ensure the health and wellbeing of our students and staff with this aggressively contagious disease, we need to continue to be closed consistent with the directives of our medical professionals. We teach our students the importance of science and data in making effective decisions – we need to follow our own lessons.
For example, as of today, approximately every 3 days the number of confirmed virus cases in New York City double. At this current rate of growth, the 25,000 cases today in New York City could grow to over half a million cases by next week. Six months from now we will be measuring the success of our response on the number of deaths avoided, not on the number of student worksheets completed.
For the current school year, I support the administration’s continuity of instruction plan that includes incrementally rolling out a hybrid instruction model based on distance learning. I believe this can be done without compromising the health and wellbeing of our students and staff. I don’t anticipate the implementation to go perfectly – that would be unlikely in a school system of our size in the best of circumstances. I do expect that our teachers and administrators will continue to place the needs of our students at the forefront as they have always done – and that the lessons we learn for this effort will guide us in improvements we will make in the future.
When we examine the long-term approach that HCPSS should take, we must focus on the steps that will enable us to emerge stronger from this crisis. More specifically, we need an immediate investment in technology and professional development for distance learning. We need to develop alternative delivery models that are flexible and responsive. It must be one that combines technology and print materials. We must address the needs of all learners – including our students who require special education supports. The school system must invest in sufficient technology such as Chromebooks and hotspots to ensure all students have access to instruction. We cannot simply allow students with financial means to succeed while students whose families struggle financially to go without and slide into further academic deficit.
When Ellicott City flooded in 2016, the common refrain was that this was a once in a 100-year flood. Insufficient action was taken to mitigate the problem. When it happened again in 2018, the damage was equally as catastrophic. The current crisis may feel like a one in a 100-year pandemic – and it would be nice to be assured that is the case. But as a community I believe we need to recognize that we are part of a highly connected world – one in which the danger of a pandemic will continue to remain. We need to have the preparation and resilience that enable us to manage through this.
We are still very much at the beginning of this challenge. The success of our response will depend on the combined efforts of our administrators, teachers, and staff – and it will depend on the combined efforts of families and students – and it will depend on the combined efforts of our community leaders and volunteers. I have seen the everyday heroism in our community in the work that has been done so far – and I am confident in our ability as a community to come through this even stronger.

Sezin Palmer (Website | Facebook | Twitter)

I think it is important to recognize that, first and foremost, the health, safety and wellbeing of our children, teachers and citizens are the highest priority.  With that said, there are significant, legitimate concerns regarding HCPSS' lack of preparedness and consideration for alternative approaches to educating our children during these unprecedented times.  While I commend the planning and preparation that went into ensuring meals are available to all children during this time, that does not obviate the responsibility of HCPSS leadership to also plan and prepare for providing educational value to all children.  We understand and can appreciate that many organizations were not prepared for the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, despite HCPSS' lack of preparation while other school systems were planning for a shut down, I fully expected that during the two weeks of school closures, HCPSS leadership would be laser focused on developing alternative educational plans for all students for what was inevitably going to be a much longer period of time.  My biggest concern in the short-term is that thousands of children are receiving little to no educational value whatsoever.  While a two-week period of time with no learning is not a crisis in and of itself, the plan communicated this week is wholly unacceptable.  Although it seems high school students will begin receiving some minimal form of education next week, elementary school children will receive little to no educational value for a total of six weeks!  In a county where we have focused so intently on closing the achievement gap, I cannot imagine how HCPSS leadership can justify allowing our youngest children who are at such a vital stage in their development to go for such a long period of time without instruction.  This will only further widen the achievement gap.   When schools re-open, there are a number of concerns I have including how this year will have impacted college-bound high school students as well as the longer-term effects of all children in Howard County public schools falling behind their peers.  While HCPSS is not unique in its lack of a reasonable approach to educating students during this time, there are many public school systems across the country and even in the state of Maryland that have put in place more comprehensive and more rigorous plans.  This means that students in Howard County are likely to be at a disadvantage compared to students in other parts of the country and state.  I would support HCPSS putting comprehensive distance learning plans in place to include ensuring all children have access to technology and appropriate educational material (including special education needs) so all children may participate.  More specific guidance to parents regarding grade appropriate expectations for distance learning would also be extremely helpful.  In the mean time, numerous distance learning approaches and materials provided by other school systems (e.g. Baltimore City, Baltimore County) will continue to demonstrate the significant gap between HCPSS' definition of a reasonable educational plan and those of our neighboring counties.
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