Here’s what you need to know about Maryland public schools reopening in March

Many Maryland schools will begin returning students to in-person instruction in March following pressure from Gov. Larry Hogan.

The Republican governor urged school leaders in January to start bringing students back for in-person classes by March, saying he will explore consequences for districts that refuse and calling on teachers unions to drop their objections. Since the state ordered schools closed a year ago as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Maryland school districts have reopened more slowly than other states.


State officials have left county school systems to decide on their own how best to safely bring children and staff back to buildings, many of which have been shuttered since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring.

A majority of Maryland’s 24 school systems are complying with the governor’s guidance. Some school systems like Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Carroll counties already have brought some students back for hybrid learning, in which educators deliver instruction to both students in the classroom and children tuning in remotely.


Here’s a few things to know about schools reopening:

How are schools working to make in-person instruction safer?

Health safety protocols are the cornerstone of many school reopening plans around the state. Students and staff can expect to encounter strict masking requirements, portable air ventilators, frequent temperature checks, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing upon returning to buildings.

Many districts also are keeping students together all day and limiting the number of teachers they have contact with to prevent any infections spreading from one classroom to another.


Some districts have been taking extra steps to limit contact between people. When Anne Arundel County schools reopened in February, officials set up multiple entrances and exits to limit close contact between people. Howard County schools, where about 4,000 students will return to classrooms March 1, will space out desks in classrooms and provide masks to students and educators.

Other public schools are investing heavily in personal protective equipment or health services. Baltimore City purchased more than $2.4 million of such items as face masks, plexiglass dividers and face shields ahead of bringing back students in kindergarten through second grade next week.

And Baltimore County hired a team of retired nurses specifically to conduct contact tracing for school employees. Pre-kindergarten through second grade students will be among the first to return to its classrooms.

Meanwhile, Carroll County schools — where students have been in hybrid mode since early January — already are planning to increase the number of in-person learning days to four a week by March 22. The plan is subject to approval by Maryland State Department of Education.

What will public education look like this year?

Public schools will look very different this year than they did in pre-pandemic times.

Students will begin trickling into classrooms in staggered groups over the next several weeks. Local health officials have advised schools to bring students back in waves in order to limit the number of people exposed by a potential COVID-19 outbreak. As a result, many reopening plans around the region are prioritizing the youngest students and learners who would benefit the most from in-person lessons for the first phases of reopening.

For example, Baltimore City plans to open all schools for four days a week, beginning with kindergarten through second grade. School leaders will stagger the return of older grades through mid-April. And in Baltimore County, administrators have prioritized the reopening of four separate public day schools that serve students with severe disabilities.

Public schools are planning to adopt a largely hybrid model of learning.

School systems including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties are splitting classes into cohorts of students, which means fewer people will be in buildings on any given day. That means classes may feel smaller to those who attend in person.

Others, like Howard County, have pushed start times back 20 minutes from what they were before the pandemic to maximize bus route efficiency. Baltimore County’s school board also voted this week to add 15 minutes to the school day, which will require funding approval by the county executive.

How many students are coming back to school?

Maryland families of school-age children have a big decision to make heading into March. Some parents rejoiced when schools firmed up reopening plans, while others agonized over the potential health risks.

While in-person attendance trends may not emerge until later in the month, many school systems have polled student guardians whether they intend to opt in to a hybrid learning model.

In Baltimore City, Black families have expressed greater hesitancy to have their children return to in-person instruction. That concern is reflected in the racial disparity among returning students. White and Latino students are choosing to go back at a greater rate, proportionally, than Black students.

District leaders said they are on target to see about 25% of elementary and middle students return to city schools in person. Only about 10% of high school students have signed up to return, but parents still have more time to decide before the deadline next month.

Baltimore County school officials are expecting about 30% of students in pre-kindergarten through second grade to return to the elementary and separate day schools next week.

Harford administrators say that about 65% of students are expected to return for in-person learning beginning next month. That number is 52% in Howard.

Of Carroll County’s more than 24,000 public school students, about 45% have chosen hybrid learning, according to schools chief Cindy McCabe. In-person instruction was more popular among middle and elementary grades than at the high school level.

Anne Arundel school administrators said 39% of elementary students, 36% of middle school students and 34% of high school students have chosen in-person learning.


What if a parent changes their mind about sending their child to school?

Many school systems in the region have pledged to remain flexible as families navigate public education during the pandemic.


Baltimore County school officials have an onboarding process for families who wish to opt-in to hybrid learning.

Anne Arundel schools spokesman Bob Mosier said after an initial period to settle into the hybrid routine, guardians can reach out to their child’s school and inquire about changing education formats. Students can transition back to online learning with no restrictions. However, families looking to go from virtual to in-person instruction may need to check the availability of space in classrooms and buses.

Carroll County officials said parents can switch their choice of in-person or online learning, but must notify the school’s principal ahead of time. Howard County school leaders also say students must get approval to move from online to in-person.

Harford County administrators are asking parents for their commitment to send children back to schools for the remainder of the school year, but understand circumstances may change, said Renee Villareal, the executive director of elementary school instruction.

What’s the plan for vaccines?

The state and school districts are following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that vaccinations are not required to reopen schools, as long as other safety precautions are in place.

Educators are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Maryland, but teachers, day care providers and others are vying for a limited number of doses with those age 65 years and older, people who have compromised immune systems and workers in other essential industries — more than 2 million people.

A few school districts have secured vaccine allotments for their staff, but some health departments have prioritized other patients over educators.

The vaccines are not yet approved for use in children and it’s not clear when they will be or how soon children will be able to get vaccinated.

White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said earlier this month that high school students may be able to get vaccinated by September, when students are returning to school. Approval for younger students may not come until early 2022.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Liz Bowie, S. Wayne Carter Jr., Kristen Griffith, Jacob Calvin Meyer and Rachael Pacella contributed to this article.

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