Citing a rise in COVID-19 positivity rates, the Kent County School Board voted 5-0 Monday to open the 20/21 school year exclusively online — based on the recommendations of KCPS Superintendent Karen Couch.

“At this time I find it extremely difficult to defend that we are 100 percent safe to return to in-person school with all of our students,” Couch said at the July 27 school board meeting that was videocast on Facebook. “The feedback in our parent and staff surveys make it clear that while many families are interested in a face to face option, there continues to be discomfort and concerns about moving forward with fully reopening our schools after Labor Day.”

She said the Kent County Health Department has characterized a recent increase in COVID-19 cases as “more alarming than it was in mid-April” and that students 10-18-years-old are more at risk for carrying the virus into the classroom. She also said it would be difficult for younger students to maintain social distancing and be diligent about wearing face masks.

Board member Trish McGee said it didn’t make sense to send kids back to school when many other functions of county business are closed in order to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

“If we can’t allow the public into a school board meeting or town hall or the county commissioners’ meeting, why would we think it is Ok to send our students and staff back into the schools,” she said.

Couch said a “high percentage” of families would choose an online learning option even if the traditional classroom was the school system’s choice for the fall. She said the board should focus its “resources toward developing a rigorous and exceptional fully remote model for the beginning of the school year.”

The vote came after a lengthy discussion and public comment period where parents submitted their concerns for and against the virtual and in-person options.

Parents favoring the traditional classroom model were often from two-working parent households where work schedule interruptions, access to daycare and facilitating the virtual learning experience for their children would be problematic.

Couch acknowledged the challenges to working parents and announced that supervised learning hubs are being organized by Support Our Schools where small groups of students can get Internet access in a controlled environment.

Kent County High School will go all virtual for the entire first semester from Sept. 8 through Jan. 28, while elementary schools and the middle school will go all virtual for the first quarter — from Sept. 8 to Nov. 10. This will allow the school system to follow COVID-19 trends and evaluate whether students could begin returning to the classroom.

“We want to ensure the trust of all our stakeholders and that we can return safely when it is warranted to do so,” Couch said. “We will continue to evaluate our transition into the hybrid model whenever it is safe to do so, that will include continued discussion with the health department to evaluate local positivity rates for COVID-19.”

The hybrid model would include a combination of virtual and traditional classroom instruction, an option that was considered at the last school board meeting on July 13. 

Couch said Monday that going with the virtual option now would provide more “consistency and predictability.”

Kent County joins other counties in Maryland that have opted for an all-virtual curriculum in the fall.