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Baltimore County school system adjusts reopening plan, apparently delaying return for young children

Just one week after announcing that he would send teachers back to classrooms on Oct. 19 and young children and those with disabilities back in November, Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams backed away from that timetable.

In a letter to staff sent Thursday, he said the timeline for bringing teachers back “has been revised and the return of all school staff will be determined after review and collaboration.”

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Williams said he would begin a “phased-in approach” at four schools for children with disabilities. Those schools — White Oak, Ridge Ruxton, Battle Monument and Maiden Choice — would open for students Nov. 16. The teachers would return Nov. 2.

“The return of these small cohorts of students and staff will be closely monitored. Further adjustment to the timeline will be made as necessary,” Williams said.

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The letter doesn’t give a timetable for the return of students in prekindergarten and kindergarten, which had been scheduled for Nov. 13. “There is no firm and set date for prekindergarten and kindergarten,” said Brandon Oland, a spokesman for the school system.

Williams said last week that there was some flexibility in his schedule. While many parents responded to his announcement that schools might open soon with surprise and support, many teachers and staff representing the school system’s other employees were angered. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and school board members said Williams did not inform them before he made the decision last week.

Local school superintendents have come under increasing pressure from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and parents to reopen schools as the spread of the virus in the community continues to decline.

But teachers unions have been a strong voice of protest, pushing school systems to remain closed until there are more safety measures in place and the numbers decline even further. Last Friday, the teachers union and the union representing noncertified professional staff in schools, wrote a letter to Williams demanding that he rescind his timeline to gradually switch the school system to in-person instruction. The unions threatened legal action, saying that he had broken a labor contract.

Earlier this week, Maryland state superintendent Karen Salmon said the state had approved reopening plans for all 24 school systems and encouraged them to open school buildings for in-person instruction as soon as possible. A state survey showed that 17 systems planned to bring at least small groups of students back in during the fall.

On Thursday morning, Carroll County announced that it would begin a phased-in return to classes that has students entering schools Oct. 19, and teachers before.

Cindy Sexton, president of the teachers union, said she has not discussed the timetable with Williams in the past week, but she said 3,000 teachers and other staff sent emails to the school board and Williams asking that he delay the return of teachers. Sexton said teachers are not opposed to bringing back small groups of students who have difficulty learning online.

The four schools that are reopening in November serve students with severe disabilities who cannot be in mainstreamed in regular public schools.

“We always knew that there were small groups of students that needed to be brought back,” Sexton said. “We need to address the needs for those students. ... We are supportive of small groups coming back safely."

Sexton said she hopes the school system sees how the return of the first groups go and then tries to open for the youngest learners, many of whom who are also struggling to learn online.

Most teachers reacted to Williams' latest schedule with “overwhelming support," but there are also teachers who would like to go back to teaching in classrooms with students right away, Sexton said.

Oland said the original dates were always flexible and that officials intend to continue to have “a lot of dialogue with everyone.”

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“I think a lot of people misinterpreted. This was just a plan” that could be changed, Oland said.

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