FCPS families lobby school board to save remote learning program

At home during a typical virtual school day, Jackson Medwid sat with his feet tucked up on a swivel chair, lined with a pink blanket adorned with cartoon corgis. On the laptop in front of him, his teacher and fellow students talked about nonviolent protests and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Jackson, a fifth grader in Frederick County Public Schools’ Remote Virtual Program, hasn’t attended class in person since first grade. With the possibility of a fire or even a shooting at school, he feels safest learning at home, he told The Frederick News-Post during his lunch break Friday.

Learning from home also helps him avoid noisy classrooms and overcrowded schools, his mother, Melissa Medwid, said.

But with the Remote Virtual Program’s future uncertain, Jackson and his parents, who live in Urbana, must decide whether homeschooling or in-person classes are suitable alternatives for him in the fall.

The school system’s proposed expenditures in its fiscal year 2025 operating budget total about $988 million. The Board of Education was tasked with closing the roughly $50 million gap between revenue and expenditures. It has approved spending reductions that would shrink the gap to about $6.4 million, according to the latest FCPS calculations shared last week.

Those reductions included cutting the Remote Virtual Program for grades 3 through 8, which would save FCPS about $2.7 million and the equivalent of about 24 full-time positions. For fiscal year 2024, the school board decided to eliminate the program for kindergarten through second grade as a cost-saving measure.

On Tuesday, the Frederick County Council voted to give to the Board of Education $442,120 it had trimmed from Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater’s fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, to help fill the budget gap.

More than 250 people had signed a Change.org petition as of Friday urging the Board of Education to reverse its May 15 vote on the Remote Virtual Program and keep it off the chopping block.

Melissa Medwid, a member of the public Facebook group “Save FCPS MD RVP,” emailed FCPS Superintendent Cheryl Dyson to advocate for the program. Each of her three children has been in the Remote Virtual Program.

“When COVID hit and they were forced to do virtual, they all absolutely loved it,” she said.

The program started as a response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Board of Education Vice President Rae Gallagher said Thursday that the federal funding that supported the program during the pandemic has since dried up, making cuts necessary.

“I would love for us to save the program,” board member David Bass said Friday. He made a motion at the May 15 meeting to eliminate the program for grades 3 through 6, but keep grades 7 and 8, where the most students are enrolled.

His motion also included saving the fourth grade instrumental music program from elimination, which the board voted separately to retain. Bass’ colleagues on the board did not support his motion to save both programs.

“I am hopeful that as we look at the budget again, there can be some movement on this issue, at least for seventh and eighth grade,” he said.

One of the reasons why FCPS staff suggested that the board consider cutting the program is because of “very low” enrollment numbers, FCPS Chief of Schools and Accountability Jamie Aliveto said during the board’s May 15 meeting.

More than 200 students are enrolled in the program, according to a letter FCPS’ Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee sent Friday to the Board of Education and Dyson, provided to the News-Post.

FCPS did not provide responses to questions from the News-Post regarding the exact number of students in the program, and did not make the staff available for an interview. The News-Post has submitted a Maryland Public Information Act to the school system seeking the data.

Support for students in need

In one of several letters from parents to members of the Board of Education and the News-Post, Marco Abiskhiroon wrote to school board President Karen Yoho to support the program.

His daughter is dependent on a tube in her trachea, which allows her to breathe, and a tube in her stomach that provides nutrition. Because of her tracheal tube, she can’t speak, and requires continuous medical care, he wrote Wednesday.

“My daughter is a prime example of why an in-person classroom is neither adequate nor feasible for her educational needs,” he wrote.

There are 36 students with disabilities and 33 students on 504 plans — for students with disabilities — enrolled in the Remote Virtual Program, FCPS Associate Superintendent of Special Education and Student Services Jennifer Bingman said at the board’s May 15 meeting.

Not all students in the Remote Virtual Program require unique accommodations. One of the most common reasons why students enroll is because “the virtual learning environment is preferred instead of in-person instruction,” according to the school system’s website for the program.

“Although the program was not designed solely as a Special Education program, it is clear that 31% of this RVP student community are students with disabilities. If the RVP will be cut from the budget, these students will need to be reintegrated into their homeschools, specialized programs, Home Hospital Teaching, or non-public placements,” the advisory committee’s Friday letter said.

The board will next discuss the fiscal year 2025 budget during a May 29 work session, which is open to the public, scheduled for 4 p.m. The board plans to finalize the budget June 26. FCPS is required by law to submit a balanced budget to the state by June 30.