Apr. 14—For the second straight month, Howard County Public School System enrollment has slightly increased.
One month after the district recorded an increase of 128 students — coinciding with the start of hybrid in-person learning March 1 — the system reported a small increase of 87 students in March. The increase for the second straight month follows five consecutive months of decreased enrollment amid the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered school buildings in March 2020 and led to 100% virtual learning through February of this year.
The district's enrollment is now 57,285, 215 students more than the lowest point in January but still about 2,000 fewer than in May 2020.
"We understood that the enrollment decline would be temporary," school system spokesperson Brian Bassett said in March. "The enrollment number is always one that fluctuates monthly, and we will continue to monitor our numbers on a school-by-school basis to ensure we are able to welcome in as many students as possible while adhering to health and safety protocols and providing a conducive learning environment for all students."
Enrollment in a normal year is crucial for school systems, and this year it has been a constant point of discussion among school system officials and the Board of Education. Annual funding from the state is tied to enrollment, while money from the county is correlated with enrollment. Most school systems in Maryland that had virtual learning saw enrollment declines in the fall. This year, however, it's likely that county school systems will not be held accountable for enrollment decreases amid the pandemic.
The district's enrollment starkly fell to begin the school year and continued downward in the fall and winter. To start the 2019-20 academic year, Howard's enrollment was 58,868. In May 2020, enrollment was 59,447, but that number fell by 2,154 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. Then, from October through January, an average of 55 students left the school system each month.
Last group back in schools for hybrid learning
The last batch of Howard County students who chose to return for in-person learning are being welcomed back into school buildings this week.
The group of students in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11 whose parents chose for them to return began hybrid this week, with half of the students back in buildings Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday and Friday.
In total, about half the district's students are now back in buildings two days a week, with a higher percentage of elementary students returning than secondary students. About 4,000 students are also in the district's "Group E" program, the term the system is using for students who returned for five-day-a-week learning on March 1. Those are children who most need in-person learning, such as students with individualized educational plans.
In the model, hybrid students are placed on an A-day/B-day schedule, with one group learning in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are still for self-guided instruction and homework.
Voluntary COVID testing program implemented
Starting this week, the Howard County school system is offering voluntary COVID-19 testing to students and staff who develop symptoms or are determined to have come within 6 feet of someone with the virus while in school buildings.
According to a release sent out by the school system, parents can provide consent for their children by logging into "HCPSS Connect Synergy," selecting "more options" from the left panel and completing the "COVID testing permission" form.
The tests are rapid antigen point-of-care tests and polymerase chain reaction tests, and the results will be shared with the county and state health departments.
The district is also offering free, voluntary polymerase chain reaction tests for students participating in sports and extracurricular activities.
Bandwidth doubled for hybrid learning
The Howard County government and school system made multiple "infrastructure enhancements" last week to sustain hybrid learning, according to a joint news release.
The changes result in the doubling of available internet bandwidth for the system's 77 schools.
"I am grateful for the collaboration with our county partners to help implement network solutions that allow students and educators to continue to deliver uninterrupted hybrid instruction," schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said in the release. "The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our reliance on technology infrastructure like never before. Yet, implementing and ensuring a reliable infrastructure is still dependent on people working together to achieve innovative results and implement innovative solutions."
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Among the changes were splitting network traffic into two additional internet pipelines; partnering with networkMaryland, the state's high-speed data network for the public sector, to increase access; shifting most elementary schools to the government's network for Google Meets; and adding a new fiber internet connection.
The changes aren't the first the district has made to increase bandwidth. Before the start of hybrid learning March 1, the system started blocking access to video streaming services on its network and on devices issued to students.
Pronoun setting available in Canvas
Starting this week, all users of the Canvas online educational system can display their preferred pronouns.
The setting is available on several Canvas pages, including discussion posts, inbox messages and grade books.
The box on Canvas is left blank but is there for those who wish to display their preferred pronouns.
For more information on how to adjust pronouns in Canvas, click here.