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Superintendents say schools in Central Maryland unlikely to return to normal in fall

Baltimore-area public school students aren’t likely to return to in-person classes five days a week in the fall, school superintendents told state lawmakers, even though the school systems are developing a variety of options for the new school year.

Several school superintendents told a legislative panel Tuesday that if the virus does not surge back in Maryland, students likely would have some in-person classes on a rotating schedule.

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In the city and Howard County, parents will have the option of keeping children home and continuing classes online. And school officials said they will respect the need for some staff who have underlying health conditions or who are older to work from home.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she will be creating “robust options” so that parents can make decisions for their families and that students and staff stay safe.

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By early August, Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano said his school system — and he believes most others — will have completed detailed plans that will be submitted to the state. Those plans will include two or three scenarios, depending on the severity of the virus and its spread in Maryland at the time. Schools are limited in the number of students they can have in a classroom at a time because of social distancing requirements.

While each of those plans is likely to be designed for the students and teachers in that district, the superintendents said they are all fairly similar because they recognize that it will be easier for families and businesses if neighboring school systems are not on completely different schedules.

Anne Arundel County spokesman Bob Mosier said his school system is likely to make some decision by late July or early August. Carroll County schools said last week they were still working on their plan. Baltimore County school officials said they are meeting with parents, staff and others as they design their plans.

Martirano views his decision making for the virus in the same way he sees an approaching hurricane or snowstorm. If there’s a sudden uptick in cases that he views as dangerous to students returning to classes in school buildings, he could change his view overnight and switch to virtual learning. School leaders foresee a constantly evolving school year, with individual schools switching back and forth from online learning to in-person classes — or perhaps some day a regular school schedule — depending on the course of the pandemic.

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Baltimore is looking at either having students go to school two days a week, or have them go to school buildings for one week and stay at home the next, Santelises said. This would allow half the student body to be in school at a time. The district also is looking at using one day a week to bring in students who have particular needs, such as students from immigrant families who are learning English, special education students, or those who have not been engaged with school since the pandemic began.

The school leaders laid out some of their significant challenges to lawmakers. Transportation has become a problem because so few students can safely be allowed on one school bus.

Teachers revolted last week in Fairfax County, Virginia, saying they would vote en masse to continue distance learning unless there were more detailed plans about safety issues for teachers.

School superintendents said they are taking cues from early feedback from parents and teachers, and creating a variety of options that include a blend of distance learning on computers and in-person classes. And they see some regional differences in approach.

Surveys of parents show that in some Maryland counties as many as 50% of the families don’t feel comfortable sending their students back into classrooms. Santelises said parents have approached her repeatedly in virtual town halls saying they are uncomfortable sending their children to school, even if they like and trusted the school prior to the pandemic.

In Garrett County, which has had 10 coronavirus cases so far, about 80 percent of parents want their children back in school in the fall.

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