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Baltimore County schools to reopen virtually for fall semester; plan would postpone fall and winter sports

When Baltimore County students return to school in September, they will do so from behind a computer screen for the duration of the fall semester.

Following other Baltimore-area school systems, the Baltimore County Board of Education voted early Tuesday night to delay a return to school buildings until the semester ends Jan. 29, citing public safety concerns and an anticipated spike in coronavirus cases in the fall, based on health expert models.

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Per the Baltimore County Public Schools’ draft reopening plan, students will begin school remotely Tuesday, Sept. 8, and will continue virtual learning until the end of January, depending on public health conditions at that time.

“If things change, we want to be flexible that if, after a quarter, if it is safe to do so, we can make [a] change,” said schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams. But the first quarter ends Nov. 13, and “that still may be too soon to make a decision” on returning for in-person learning.

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If students return for in-person instruction in January, they will do so on a rotating basis, and parents will have the option of continuing remote learning full time.

Also, the draft reopening plan, which has not been approved yet, called for the athletic season to be canceled during virtual instruction or until the school system determines it’s safe for organized sports teams to gather.

In the fall, remote learning will model a bell schedule instead of the asynchronous class times hastily rolled out when school buildings statewide were mandated by Gov. Larry Hogan to close mid-March.

A sample of a student's virtual learning schedule included in the reopening plan for Baltimore County Public Schools, approved by the school board early Tuesday night. The actual time periods of classes, lunch and independent work time will vary based on the student’s schedule.
A sample of a student's virtual learning schedule included in the reopening plan for Baltimore County Public Schools, approved by the school board early Tuesday night. The actual time periods of classes, lunch and independent work time will vary based on the student’s schedule. (Courtesy of Baltimore County / Baltimore Sun)

Teachers will give live instruction to students virtually every day, except for Wednesdays, for a duration of two to 3½ hours, with up to three hours of independent work daily.

Wednesdays will be used by teachers to engage with students one-on-one, plan and instruct asynchronous lessons.

In December, parents will be surveyed to determine which students would return for in-person learning in February.

Families will also be asked for feedback on the plan after each quarter, an amendment posed by vice chair Julie Henn because of concerns from parents of special education students “over virtual instruction and the ability to deliver service effectively for those students.”

A survey gauging community opinions on reopening options returned more than 52,000 responses from students, parents and teachers, with no strong consensus for a single option among any group. Of the surveyed students, 42% said they preferred a full return to in-person learning, compared with 30% of parents and almost 23% of teachers.

Virtual learning received the least support from students and parents — just 20% of students and 27% of parents — but was the option most strongly supported by educators, with 43% indicating that preference.

Between 31% and 35% of students, parents and teachers preferred the hybrid option.

The Baltimore County teachers union and four other unions representing county school system employees said they do not want to return to school buildings until they feel it’s safe.

“Educators will figure out how to teach kids” virtually, said Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. The challenge will be how to form and maintain relationships with students without in-person contact, she said.

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“Educators miss being in the school buildings — they miss their students,” she said.

Sexton added that the curriculum, grading and accountability measures for class attendance in the virtual learning setting will be more rigorous, noting that teachers in the spring did not receive training to teach remotely.

“We are still teaching and leading with compassion — but the accountability in doing the work and attending class will be much [more enforced],” she said.

Board members last week voiced concern over the potential impact to students who rely on school system supports, including English learners, students with disabilities and students living in poverty.

Per the reopening plan, small group instruction and support sessions will be available Wednesday mornings for identified students who need it, and each school will provide in-person “extended learning opportunities” before or after school or on weekends, either one-on-one or in small groups, led by teachers and paraeducators.

Supports may also be given to students’ transition to kindergarten, sixth or ninth grade. For students who rely on school meals, “mobile meal sites” will be available for all students at yet-to-be-specified locations.

Guidance will be released for how to conduct extra-curricular activities, including resources for student leaders, volunteer organizations and school administrators, per an amendment from Henn. The plan gives some flexibility for sports conditioning and other extra-curricular activities to continue virtually.

The board did not vote specifically on the sports season, but the draft reopening plan calls for canceling team sports during virtual instruction or until the school system determines it’s safe for organized sports teams to gather.

Hogan has not expressed an opinion about how public schools should look in the fall, but said he and state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon would hold a news conference this 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.

Harford, Howard, Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City have all opted for a virtual return in the fall.

School systems must submit reopening plans to the Maryland State Department of Education by Aug. 14.

Baltimore County health officials on Monday joined health officers from Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in submitting a letter asking the state health department to bring back more restrictive measures to curb disease spread as confirmed cases among young people and hospitalizations have trended upward.

Maryland’s seven-day average positivity rate was lower than 5% on Tuesday for the 26th consecutive day. The World Health Organization’s benchmark for easing restrictions is an average positivity rate lower than 5% during a two-week span.

Health experts, including from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, are increasingly recommending students return to in-person classes, with social distancing measures in place, saying the risk of hunger or child abuse outweighs the risk of children contracting COVID-19, from which they are less likely to develop complications than are adults.

This story has been updated to clear up confusion about whether fall and winter sports are cancelled. The Baltimore County Public Schools’ draft reopening plan, which has not been approved yet, called for the the athletic season to be canceled during virtual instruction or until the school system determines it’s safe for organized sports teams to gather.

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