Baltimore County Public Schools officials want to bring students back to classrooms in the second semester. But with just one month to go, it remains unclear if the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate will throw that plan off course.
At a recent school board meeting, board member Russ Kuehn pressed School Superintendent Darryl Williams on when school officials will make a decision about students returning.
“There is going to be a go, no go decision day, right?” Kuehn asked Williams. “I would guess that would be a week or so out, if not two weeks out.”
Williams told Kuehn he could not give him a specific date because reentry is going to be based on when the rate of COVID-19 cases in the county declines to an acceptable level.
“When it’s safe to do so we will begin to bring back small groups of students,” Williams said. “We would have to notify our families and staff well before folks are actually returning.”
Board member Erin Hager questioned whether school officials will be ready.
“We keep hearing we’ll open when it’s safe to do so but we were there in the fall and we were not able to do so because the plans weren’t in place,” Hager said.
Williams said the focus in the fall was to open academic support centers to help students, particularly those who did not have a Wi-Fi connection.
When students return, it will be a hybrid model, a combination of in-person and virtual learning. Students will be brought back in phases, starting with those who struggle most with online instruction. There will be a week or two between phases. If the first phase goes well, then they will move on to the next phase.
School officials had planned to first open the four schools for its most physically disabled students. Then three more phases would follow. The school board voted to change that plan. Instead, the reopening of the other schools will not be tied to how things go when students return to those four special schools.
Board member Kathleen Causey said a number of those students are medically fragile.
Causey asked, “Why would they go first and be the potentially limiting factor on other student populations that have less medical concerns?”
The board also voted to have school officials consult with the health department as to whether two of the planned four phases could be combined so more students could be brought back sooner. Those two phases include all students in prekindergarten through 2nd grade as well as special education students.
Williams told the board everyone wants the students back in the classrooms as soon as it is safe. But he cautioned that school officials are struggling with the effects of the pandemic at the same time the November 24 ransomware attack robbed them of data.
“We’re dealing with two attacks,” Williams said. “I just want us to give us some time and space to prepare.”