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Baltimore County's Plan For Fall Learning Runs Risk Of Being Rejected By State

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A Baltimore County schools plan to offer families a choice between virtual or in-person learning this fall may be headed for trouble with the state school board.

The plan would no longer have educators simultaneously teaching students at home and in the classroom. Teachers instead would be dedicated to one or the other.

It’s the same deal with the students. They either would be learning online or in the classroom. Students who opt for virtual learning would remain part of their regular school.

Registration opens next week, and parents will be asked to make a choice for the school year.

However, Chief Academic Officer Mary Boswell-McComas said they would allow parents to change their minds.

“Let’s say they get to October, they get to the end of the first quarter or something and they decide ‘no, my child’s now vaccinated and I want them back in person,’” she said. “We’ll have a process in place for families to work with their school to return to in person learning.”

Once the county school board is briefed next week on the fall plans, Boswell-McComas said they will be submitted to the state for approval.

That may be a tough sell.

In a statement to WYPR, Maryland State Department of Education spokeswoman Lora Rakowski said the dual offerings of in-person and online are not acceptable. She said the state education department and the state Board of Education remain focused on students returning to five day a week in-person instruction as soon as possible, and certainly for the next school year.

Rakowsi wrote, “Students who are not participating in in-school instruction should be the exception.”

Even if the plan does go through, some parents say the county school system is not providing the details they need to decide between virtual and in-person instruction.

Virtual learning has been a success for one of Emily Mullinix’s two children. She wants to keep her sixth grader home next year because she struggles with speaking, so the chat function in Google Meets works great for her.

Mullinix wants to know what virtual learning would look like and how services would be provided to students who need them.

“It makes the choice difficult not knowing what we’re choosing,” Mullinix said.

She said her other child, a fifth grader, is worried about COVID-19 and is too young to get vaccinated. He is recommended for advanced academics. Mullinix is concerned those classes won’t be offered virtually.

She said, “Then I have to choose between, ok, what’s best for his health or what has the best options academically for him.”

Another parent, Andra Williams Broadwater is the mother of a house divided. Three of her four children want to be in classrooms. However, one of her sons, who will be in 8th grade, wants to stick with virtual learning.

Broadwater said he’s self-motivated and likes the independence of learning from home. But she has some questions, such as can he be in the band?

“And would he have the option of participating in a group band class?” Broadwater asked.

Boswell-McComas said there will be some classes that will only be offered in person. They plan to give parents those details before registration begins next week. They also are working on ways to allow students staying home to take part in extracurricular activities.

Boswell-McComas said while this virtual school option would be created as a response to the COVID pandemic, it may outlast it.

“We are going to monitor and keep an eye on what is the actual demand from families to have a full-time virtual school that would be a permanent part of our BCPS offerings,” Boswell-McComas said.

The county school system surveyed parents last week to gauge their interest in the virtual option for the fall. Boswell-McComas said she cannot release the results of that survey until they are given to the county school board, which likely will happen at its next meeting May 18.

Mita Vogel’s daughter, who goes to the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, is skeptical about the school system’s Fall plans.

“I don’t believe anything that comes out of their mouth at this point,” Vogel said. “The communication has been so horrible. They will say that this is what’s going to happen, then turn around and change it.”

Since COVID closed schools statewide last March, Boswell-McComas said it’s been a challenging time with unexpected changes.

“And it takes us as a system a minute to sometimes adjust to those changing conditions and expectations.”

A changing condition may lie ahead for the county schools If the state rejects the county’s fall reopening plan.