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Looking to 2021, Anne Arundel schools expect to start hybrid learning, vaccines factor into staff return to schools

It’s been said countless times that 2020 was an unprecedented year — an uphill battle for schools trying to keep students educated safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

But 2021 will bring more new challenges as the next phase of pandemic learning is scheduled to begin if metrics allow: hybrid learning.

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Pre-kindergarteners through fifth-grade students are set to begin hybrid learning on Feb. 2 at Anne Arundel County Public Schools, with special education, English language learners and Center of Applied Technology students possibly in buildings even sooner.

Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said maintaining distance learning while preparing for hybrid learning has been one of the most difficult and challenging parts of the last nine months.

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“We’re trying to build and enhance a virtual environment while at the same time prepare for an in-person environment,” Mosier said.

“So we’re not doing one educational model but two. Then hybrid makes a third.”

A survey will go out to families this week asking parents to choose if they want their child to be one of the first to start county public schools in person or remain at home for distanced learning. A teacher survey will follow shortly after, Mosier said.

Hybrid learning was supposed to begin in November but was pushed back when coronavirus case rates soared. The county health department recommends schools not reopen until the county can maintain a daily case rate of 10 per every 100,000 residents for at least a week.

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The only time case rates were that low was during the summer, county health officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman said. He’ll give an update on the health department’s recommendations for reopening at the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.

The coronavirus vaccine will be a critical factor for getting teachers and staff back in school, he said, and the county is still trying to understand the timing of when vaccines could be distributed. Once residents can get through cold and flu season, and more vaccines are distributed, he expects case rates to come down.

“Our main goals are to make sure that there are enough additional safety measures in place to manage the higher case rates we have now,” Kalyanaraman said. “We’re confident about the schools’ plan on that front.”

The school system is hiring parent volunteers, dubbed “midday monitors,” to help supervise students during a 90-minute break window. Some are in the hiring process and the school is actively seeking people for roles, Mosier said.

Monitors are a concern for the county teachers association, president Russell Leone said. If a monitor is used for multiple cohorts or in other spaces, he worries about the possibility of the virus spreading.

“With so many different pieces to (hybrid learning), there’s so much to consider that our concern still is making sure they’re all thought through all the way,” Leone said.

Mallory LaFon, Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs president, is confident in the hybrid learning model and how parent volunteers are being trained.

She said she wants to see more students and parents involved in the reopening planning process so they can share perspectives with the steering committee. Timing has also been an issue for families, she said.

“If the numbers are right and school is supposed to start hybrid than parents want to be able to prepare more than two weeks or a week in advance,” she said.

Timing is one of the system’s biggest challenges, as Mosier said the metrics and health department guidance is mostly fluid.

“Everybody’s trying to do the best they can to put things in place so things can move over and move forward,” Mosier said.

“It certainly hasn’t been easy but this whole thing has never been easy.”

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