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Baltimore-area students return to classrooms, many for the first time in nearly a year

Students around the Baltimore region headed back to school buildings Monday, many for the first time in nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Maryland public schools.

Gov. Larry Hogan has urged school leaders to start bringing students back for in-person classes this month. Maryland school districts have reopened more slowly than other states.

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Baltimore City and Carroll County partially reopened to some students in recent weeks. Other school systems, like Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, welcomed a wave of learners back to schools for the first time Monday.

Kindergartners through second graders braved some light rain Monday morning to walk with their parents to Stoneleigh Elementary School in Towson. A neighbor, who had ventured out to collect several newspapers from his front yard, asked a passerby which grades were returning to the building.

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“Big day,” he said.

Cameron Burkhart, 6, arrived at Stoneleigh decked with a cat-themed face mask, a Star Wars backpack and Spider-Man sneakers. The kindergartner counted off the names of several classmates he would be meeting face-to-face for the first time.

His mother Emma Burkhart and brother Jude said they greeted Cameron Monday morning with a homemade sign that said “first real day of school.”

Cameron said he was “both scared and excited” to be away from home and to eat in a lunch room for the first time.

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Kevin Leary said it was a tough decision to send his 7-year-old son, James, back to in-person instruction. Online classes have gone really well this year, but James made it clear he was “ready to go.”

Crossing guard Marcella Bazemore cheerfully escorted families like the Burkharts across the street as they beelined toward the Baltimore County public school.

“I love that mask,” Bazemore said to students as they passed.

“We’re so excited to see you,” one mom replied.

Bazemore noticed parents were as happy as the kids Monday, almost like it was their first day back to school too, she said.

“The parents’ eyes are just dancing like it’s Christmas,” Bazemore said.

In Baltimore, some of the little kindergartners lined up outside of Waverly Elementary/Middle School’s front door had never been inside before. Their backpacks were shiny and new. Their hair was perfectly braided. One wore a sparkly, sequined top, another a tutu for a skirt. The boys were solemn.

They may have had school by laptop screen for months, but for teachers, the principal and the students, Monday was a new beginning at the Baltimore City school.

“It is like the first day of school,” said principal Tanya Green, who approached Monday with the same energy she would have reserved for an August opening. Balloons were scattered in bunches inside the school. Teachers held pompoms and swayed to the music that blared from speakers on the sidewalk.

Janai Thomas, a kindergarten English language arts teacher, speaks with Juel Jenifer, 5, during class. Forty five kindergarten through 5th grade students returned to in-person learning at Waverly Elementary/Middle School on Monday. This is the first time students have been in the school since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Janai Thomas, a kindergarten English language arts teacher, speaks with Juel Jenifer, 5, during class. Forty five kindergarten through 5th grade students returned to in-person learning at Waverly Elementary/Middle School on Monday. This is the first time students have been in the school since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“We wanted them to know we have been waiting for them,” said Greem, adding that she also was waiting to calm their fears and insecurities.

The school is welcoming back 147 of its 540 students in the next few weeks on a hybrid schedule. Even getting that number of students back took time and patience. Green held four tours of the building for parents, called families to reassure them that their children could be safe and now has a waiting list for students who want to return.

Baltimore City has some of the state’s oldest and most deteriorated school buildings. In some schools that opened in September, half of the students have returned. Schools chief Sonja Santelises believes that once families see the precautions in place they will feel more comfortable sending their children.

In Harford County, about 65% of the school system’s more than 16,800 elementary students were returning Monday for in-person learning, according to HCPS officials. The rest will continue learning online from home.

Harford brought back its youngest students gradually during the month of October, but reverted to online-only after just a few weeks as COVID-19 cases began to spike statewide and in the county last fall.

Kristin Vencill’s son, a kindergartner at Church Creek Elementary in Belcamp, was among the 11,000 or so students returning this week. He struggled with online learning, she said.

“My son thinks that this is what school is — he has no idea that it’s actually in a classroom, he actually thinks it is in front of a computer, not being able to see his friends,” she said, calling the experience “depressing.”

Vencill said it was a “no-brainer” for her son to go back. He did well when students briefly came back to the classroom in the fall. Vencill said she thinks attending in person will help build his self-confidence and independence.

About 40% of elementary students in Anne Arundel County Public Schools chose to return to classrooms for two days a week, said spokesman Bob Mosier.

In addition to a strict mask requirement, portable air ventilators, frequent temperature checks and COVID-19 testing, Anne Arundel schools have a protocol for children who report feeling unwell or are exhibiting symptoms, Mosier said. And there are plans in place with the county health department for what to do at a school with a known positive. Each situation will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Waverly Elementary/Middle School principal Dr. Green expressed her excitement for the reopening of Baltimore City schools and the return of the students.

“We’ll take that as it occurs,” Mosier said. “It’s certainly going to occur somewhere whether it’s today or tomorrow or Thursday or Friday, it’s going to happen.”

Students in grades six, nine and 12 will return March 8, with 15 weeks until the end of the year. Students in the remaining grades will return March 22, with 13 weeks left in the year.

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano wore the same shamrock tie and socks Monday that he was wearing the day before schools were closed March 13th last year.

“That night, I was at a Howard High School girls basketball game, and that was the last student event I attended,” Martirano said. “I’m wearing the tie to remind me of where we’ve come, but also to sprinkle good luck to everybody.”

About 4,000 students in the 77-school system returned to classrooms for in-person instruction. The students in “Group E” — the term the district uses for the students who returned Monday — are those who most need in-person learning, such as students with individualized educational plans and those who were invited to the in-person small group programs in the fall.

The district will bring more students back in two weeks, with all students who want to return to classrooms back by April 12.

Back at Stoneleigh Elementary in Towson, some families still paused for a moment of normalcy with their children. Parents crouched down to snap the traditional first-day-of-school photo outside of the building.

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Zuzana LaBuff took one such photo of her 6-year-old daughter Victoria, who pulled down her mask for a moment to smile before heading inside for kindergarten.

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Baltimore Sun Media reporters Liz Bowie, S. Wayne Carter Jr., Brooks DuBose and Jacob Calvin Meyer contributed to this article.

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