Baltimore County schools officials announced Thursday that they want to start switching gradually to in-person instruction, bringing select groups of students back to school classrooms by Nov. 13.
The transition to in-person instruction is not mandatory, and will be offered first to students in preschool and kindergarten and some students with disabilities, Superintendent Darryl L. Williams said in an email to faculty Thursday.
Williams said the timeline is not a done deal, but acknowledged the announcement surprised some families and faculty members. Several board of education members said they learned of the plan Thursday. And County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a former teacher, said in a statement he had no notice, either.
The announcement comes three weeks after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state school superintendent Karen Salmon encouraged local school systems to develop plans to reopen schools this fall, saying all 24 school districts meet new state benchmarks indicating it is safe to reopen for some in-person instruction.
Williams emphasized that the county schools’ plan is flexible and will be carried out only if there are enough of both students and faculty willing to return to limited in-person instruction, he said.
“I would never want to put people in harms way,” Williams said. “This was not the top-down message that folks are interpreting.”
The school system plans to survey those students' families in early October to identify who wants to return, the announcement states. There were more than 11,000 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten last fall in the county.
The schools plan to operate at a limited capacity based on guidelines from the Baltimore County Health Department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams cautioned that the timeline is subject to change depending on the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the superintendent said he has to start thinking about how to bring back students and staff at some point.
“Let’s say we do virtual learning for the first semester and then everyone has to come back in the second semester," he said. "That, to me, is not a transition.”
The feedback from family and faculty will dictate whether the timeline is feasible, Williams said.
“I can’t bring back kids if I don’t have staff, and I can’t bring back staff if I don’t have the kids,” he said.
All Baltimore-area districts started the school year entirely online. Baltimore County is one of the first districts in the region to announce it’s planning to offer at least some students an opportunity to come back to school buildings. Harford County school leaders said earlier this week, they are considering a similar strategy to bring young children and special needs students back soon.
Michelle Szczepaniak, of Middle River, said she’s looking forward to sending her children back to school. She has a senior at Kenwood High School and an eighth-grader at Parkville Middle.
“I feel very grateful that BCPS has finally put together a plan that makes the most sense," Szczepaniak said in an email. "If parents do not want to send their children to the school house, I think they’ll be given an option to remain in the virtual learning world.”
The county schools’ timeline states that all faculty and staff would to return to school buildings Oct. 19 in preparation for the return of students. Those with questions about returning to work were asked to contact the school system’s human resources division.
Williams said he fielded multiple phone calls Thursday from faculty and that human resources had received “a lot of inquiries" following the announcement.
Teachers union president Cindy Sexton said none of the five unions representing school system staff, from teachers to bus drivers and school administrators, were aware of the plan to return students to schools until 11 a.m. Thursday morning when they were called into a meeting with top administrators. An email went to staff two hours later.
“We are very concerned. We were not part of the conversations,” Sexton said. “There are so many logistical questions. Teachers are also concerned about those students and staff who have compromised immune systems or do not wish to go back into a classroom for other reasons."
For the past several weeks, Sexton said, the unions have been represented on a committee that had discussed bringing small numbers of students back in schools, but they were not prepared for what they believe was a sudden announcement.
Principals also were briefed about the reopening plans shortly before the public announcement. Tom DeHart, the executive director of the union representing principals and administrators, said his members have lots of questions about how they will find child care and what they will do if they have underlying illnesses.
Administrators have been back at work since the summer in their schools, he said, and they don’t have as much trouble with the decision to bring young children back, particularly because research suggests they may be less likely to spread the virus.
“At some point we have to rip the Band-Aid off and say we have to get back to work,” DeHart said. “I understand the pressure that the superintendents are under. The state has given these broad instructions and left it to the districts.”
But teachers and principals weren’t the only ones who were shocked by the announcement. Board vice chair Julie Henn announced on her Facebook page that she had not known of the timeline until shortly before the announcement. The board had not discussed it, she said.
Baltimore County also announced Thursday that it will provide $7 million in childcare subsidies for low-income families, as well as open 54 learning centers to support families this fall.
The county said in a news release it plans to work with several day care providers to offer in-person child care for children in kindergarten to fifth grade. The centers will practice social distancing, and students will be grouped in cohorts of up to 14 children. Meals will be provided by Baltimore County Public Schools.
Operators will manage child care centers at 45 elementary schools at a cost of between $225 to $275 per week. The county recreation and parks department will operate child care at nine Police Athletic League centers.
The $7 million from the county aims to support low-income working parents who are unable to stay home to manage their children’s remote learning. Letters will be mailed to potentially eligible families by Sept. 28 with instructions on how to access the online application for the subsidies, according to the county.
Olszewski said in a statement that the county has “an obligation” to support working families hit hard by the pandemic.
Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.