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In ever-changing pandemic, Maryland and Baltimore-area schools leaders say one thing is certain: Classes will be in-person next school year

Education officials say all Maryland public schools will be open five days a week for in-person classes next school year, despite currently rising coronavirus cases and changing federal guidance on masking.

There are no plans to switch back to online learning. No plans to reintroduce the hybrid compromise, where teachers simultaneously instruct online and in front of a class of students. And no one is talking about expanding seats for what is planned to be a limited number of online students.

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But dozens of questions confront school leaders with no answers yet: How will students learn if they are stuck at home in quarantine for a week? What if there are large outbreaks, as there probably will be? Will masks be mandatory? Will schools offer vaccinations?

School officials — from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to education officials at the state and local level — say they must restart normal school after 18 months of disruption.

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks with Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott after a tour of the new Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights Elementary Middle School.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks with Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott after a tour of the new Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights Elementary Middle School. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

“We know how to control community spread and how to make sure our schools safe,” Cardona said at a Baltimore City school event Wednesday, “and we also know that when students are not in school they run risks as well.

“Some are alone, some don’t have food, some of them don’t have that social, emotional engagement that they need to be healthy. So I do believe that students are safe in school.”

Asked if there was any scenario where schools might go online only again, Cardona said “No.”

Parents are still haunted by the sudden shift school districts made last year, leaving many students no option but to learn at home for most of the last school year.

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But school systems throughout the region say that despite recent changes in the progression of the virus, they will be open.

“We are committed to coming back,” said Joan Dabrowski, Baltimore City schools’ chief academic officer.

The city is offering 2,000 places for students who want to learn online, but students must meet certain criteria. The city school system does not see the virtual option as an escape hatch in case of rising coronavirus cases, but rather as an alternative for a tiny fraction of its students.

Dabrowski said the system has no intention of opening a large online school in October, even if virus cases rise. With weekly testing, mask mandates and other precautions in place, she said schools should be safe for students and staff.

“We know so much more about the science and the safety measures that have to be in place,” she said.

Gigi Gronvall, immunologist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said she believes “that in-person school is a priority and that school administrators have the tools they need to make their schools safe — they need to use them and political leaders should help or sit down.”

What she worries about is an increase in cases in children in places where many people are unvaccinated and precautions aren’t taken.

In addition to the city, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard county school systems have decided recently that all students and staff must wear masks, whether they are vaccinated or not. While some parents may protest the move, and, online, people are organizing a boycott of school districts with mask mandates, so far there has been no significant push back by parents.

Even some of the teachers who fought to keep schools closed last year are supporting a return to full classrooms in September.

“I feel certain we are going back to school in the fall,” said Cindy Sexton, president of the Baltimore County teachers union.

After a year of work, she believes the safety precautions are in place. However, she wants the mask mandates to be followed, and is concerned about parents who didn’t sign up for the online classes, but now feel uncomfortable sending their children to school.

Emily Mullinix said she is pondering whether to keep her two Baltimore County middle school students enrolled in online classes, even though one of them is eager to return.

“I am worried that even with masks I don’t know how well it will be enforced and how well the ventilation system in the school works,” Mullinix said. “It sounds like the vaccine might take a little longer than I had hoped. All of these things have me pretty nervous.”

If her son goes to school in person and is exposed to the virus, there’s no option for learning under quarantine, she said.

In the city, Dabrowski said she is working with schools to see what online options might be available to students who are quarantined. While a full day of online classes won’t be offered, officials know that sending home packets of learning material for 10 days is not optimal either.

School leaders have said they are ready for the fall semester.

“The last thing we want to do is close school,” said Baltimore County Superintendent Darryl Williams, who called a special board meeting this week to discuss a mask mandate.

The school system, which is the state’s third largest behind Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, reopened more slowly amid the pandemic than neighboring school systems.

”Once our schools are open, we want them to remain open. That’s the goal,” said Makeda Scott, chairwoman for the Baltimore County school board.

While many school systems across the state have offered online options for students this fall, fewer than 2% of students were signed up in June. Such flexibility is not available in more rural places like Carroll County, which canceled its plan to offer an online learning option for students after receiving a low number of enrollment applications.

Harford County students have a choice between online or in-person learning in the fall. School leaders regularly discuss the COVID variants and anticipate more conversations with local health officials as the first day of school approaches, said spokeswoman Jillian Lader.

“The board was emphatic that they wanted kids in classrooms in the fall. That has been our sole focus,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County schools.

But much will depend, he said, on state education leaders who so far have encouraged a return.

“We must open schools for in-person learning and can do so safely with layered public health strategies in place, including vaccinations for all those who are eligible,” Maryland State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said in a statement, noting that it is for the well-being of children.

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this report.

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