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Baltimore County schools superintendent leaning toward virtual fall return

As the Baltimore County Schools board considers how to reopen schools, Superintendent Darryl L. Williams said he is leaning toward remote learning with a phased-in return for the 2020-21 academic year.

“We’re looking at safety first as a driving factor,” Williams said.

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But virtual learning in the fall won’t be the same model of remote learning students and teachers weathered this spring. “What we did during the initial closing won’t be how we will start,” he said.

Williams envisions initially starting the school year remotely, and phasing in a physical return to school buildings, predicated on regional conditions as the coronavirus pandemic continues. The Maryland State Education Association, Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland Parent Teacher Association called on state officials Tuesday to start the academic year in an online-only setting.

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has not expressed an opinion about how public schools should look in the fall, but said Wednesday that he and state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon would hold a news conference next week with more guidance.

“We all want our children to get back to school as soon as possible, but only if and when we can do it in a way that keeps our students and teachers safe,” said the Republican governor, adding that “we cannot and should not rush” the decision on schools.

In Baltimore County, the school board is still hashing out options and may vote to adopt the virtual learning plan at its next meeting Aug. 11.

County school officials are considering a more structured approach mimicking a typical bell-schedule, which could improve students’ academic performance, said Renard Adams, the school system’s senior executive director of curriculum operations.

“We’ve learned some lessons around the asynchronous [scheduling],” Williams said. “We’re gonna look more at a different model.”

The sudden shift to remote learning after Hogan ordered school buildings closed in mid-March garnered a “mixed” reaction from students, Adams said.

Some students told school officials the course work was not challenging enough, while others said they found it difficult to keep up, given their living arrangement or because of extenuating circumstances like work or family concerns, Adams said.

Given the difficulties presented to working parents of students who are not able to attend in-person classes, board member Lisa Mack asked: “If there is never a vaccine and we do not reach herd immunity for years, can we sustain remote learning while ensuring there is true academic achievement?”

Online course assignments in the spring were designed to be less “academically overwhelming,” said board member Lily Rowe.

Adams, who headed up the effort to switch to remote learning in the spring, said that he is working with teachers and administrators to create a more rigorous online curriculum should the school board select the remote learning model.

A virtual return is one of three options school board members took up during a virtual meeting Tuesday evening, one month before the deadline for Maryland school systems to submit opening plans to the Maryland State Department of Education.

All models presented Tuesday night hinge on which phase of Hogan’s Roadmap to Recovery plan the county finds itself in.

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If a spike in COVID-19 cases prompts Maryland and Baltimore County, which are now in Phase 2 of Hogan’s reopening plan, to return to the first phase of coronavirus recovery, schools will keep remote learning in place.

If the county remains in the second phase when schools are due to reopen, the school system would allow groups of students to go to school in-person on a weekly rotation at 30% to 35% capacity. Some students would continue to learn through live online instruction.

In that scenario, students attending in-person classes would do so Monday through Thursday, and Friday lessons would occur online without real-time interaction with educators. Friday would serve as a planning day for teachers.

The final option would fully reopen school buildings for in-person learning if the state and county enter Phase 3; all students and staff would return and face covering would be optional.

The state’s current second phase allowed for larger social gatherings, indoor gym classes, regular child care, increased mass transit schedules, indoor religious services, restaurant and bar service with capacity and other restrictions, and elective procedures at hospitals.

Coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations had been on a mostly downward trajectory since Maryland’s peak in late April, though cases, especially among young adults, have leapt in the past week.

Efforts to curb disease spread in other states, like California, Florida and Texas, have backslid after those states loosened restrictions and reopened local economies. Surges in cases have prompted some states to once again close nonessential businesses.

In Baltimore County, nearly 11 residents per 1,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus. Baltimore County has a coronavirus testing positivity rate of 4.8%, marginally higher than the state’s 4.6% positivity rate. So far in July, almost 1,000 new coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the county at an average of 73 new cases a day, for a total of 4,990 total cases since the virus arrived in mid-March. Hospitalizations, however, are trending downward.

The last big spike in county cases came in late May when 234 new patients were confirmed by the Department of Health.

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