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Baltimore-area school systems won’t immediately adopt new federal, state spacing recommendations

Baltimore-area school districts say they will consider the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newest recommendations for social distancing in schools, but stopped short of saying the guidelines will accelerate a return to in-person instruction.

State officials delivered a letter Thursday to local superintendents stating Maryland has adopted the new CDC guidelines that allow for public school students to maintain just 3 feet of distance between each other while in the classroom, instead of the previous recommendation of 6 feet.

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Adults should continue to maintain at least 6 feet distance from students and other adults, the guidelines state.

The change could mean schools can have more students in-person at one time, potentially allowing students to attend in-person classes five days a week. Many Maryland students only attend in-person a couple of days a week and are online the other days, allowing districts to meet spacing recommendations by limiting capacity and rotating in-person students.

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The letter, which was signed by Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon and Dr. Jinlene Chan, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, touted the new guidelines as an incentive to hasten students’ return to school buildings.

“This updated guidance and the continued low rate of cases in schools should empower all Maryland schools to bring more students back into the classroom and/or give students the opportunity to receive in-person instruction more frequently before the end of the school year,” the letter states.

Still, local school systems like Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties said they will consider folding the new guidance into their existing reopening plans — but did not say how it would affect their timeline for reopening, nor the number of students permitted to return.

Baltimore City schools will consider whether the change “supports our goal of increasing the number of students who feel they can safely return to in person learning,” spokesman André Riley said in an email Friday.

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The Anne Arundel County school board has scheduled a special meeting March 30 to discuss the impact of the new CDC distancing guidelines on their reopening plan for the spring.

Baltimore County school administrators have been closely watching the CDC and state guidelines on social distancing research and will “build these new guidelines into our plans as we continue our progress towards a full school reopening,” spokesman Charles Herndon said in an email.

Howard County school leaders said they plan to consider changes to social distancing once the system has concluded its phased-in approach to reopening next month.

Other school systems like Carroll and Harford counties say they don’t expect to make any changes to their 6-foot social distancing policies, though Harford County spokeswoman Jillian Lader said the updated CDC guidance “will support efforts to welcome more students into our schools.”

Both Anne Arundel and Harford County school officials have pointed out the revised CDC guidelines do not increase school bus capacity, nor does it alter the recommendation that students sitting less than 6 feet away from another person diagnosed with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes must quarantine at home.

Meanwhile, parents advocating for the reopening of schools called on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan this month to adopt the 3-foot guidance, saying it will give schools more leeway to increase the number of students in the building every day.

Baltimore County parent Amy Adams said she is frustrated that none of her three children are yet permitted to return to public school buildings.

“I’m not comfortable with this pace,” Adams said. “That’s over a year now of [remote] learning.”

Adams, who represents the grassroots Baltimore County Parent and Student Coalition, which advocates for school reopening, said she hopes the CDC’s new guidelines will ramp up the speed at which children are brought back to classrooms. She believes the success of the upcoming fall semester will hinge on how quickly students return to in-person instruction in the coming weeks.

“Many people are writing this year off as over, but it’s not over,” Adams said.

Still, some experts say that public schools should continue to take a measured approach to reopening in hopes of building trust with families.

Annette Anderson, the deputy director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said a sudden shift in plans may stall the progress that school systems have made to get children back in schools.

“Saying the science backs this may not convince parents, who have been wary for a year, to hasten the shift to putting kids back to buildings,” said Anderson, adding that this is especially true for Black, Latino and Asian families who have opted for in-person instruction at lower rates than white families.

Anderson, who has worked on the Johns Hopkins School Reopening Policy Tracker, said school systems need time to implement new safety protocols, which can involve complex changes in transportation, staffing, student cohorts and even which parts of the school students and staff pass through.

“Schools have so many items and issues that they have to address before they can accommodate more students,” she said. “It’s not as simple as saying ‘Go to 3 feet.’ People making these decisions are not the same people figuring out how schools operate.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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