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No School Closings This Year, State Superintendent Predicts

Loch Raven High Schol pix.JPG
Students head toward the doors at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore County for the first day of school. Credit: John Lee

Maryland State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said Monday he expects no public-school building in the state will close this academic year because of COVID-19.

Choudhury joined other state and local officials at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore County to mark the start of the school year. He said there will be positive cases, but added that local school superintendents will do everything possible to keep classrooms safe.

“I do not see a scenario where we have to close a single school down in Maryland if we ensure our safety protocols are in place and we ensure we are supporting our schools with everything we have and the resources they have on the ground right now,” Choudhury said.

Students in Baltimore and Howard Counties and Baltimore City masked up and returned to school Monday morning. The school year begins with all Maryland localities having a substantial to high rate of COVID-19 transmission according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At Loch Raven High, buses and cars lined up for the drop off. Principal Janine Holmes stood in the middle of the sidewalk, greeting hundreds of students before they entered.

“Good morning. Smiling? Everybody’s smiling right? Under the masks? We just can’t tell.”

Any student not wearing a mask got stopped.

Holmes said, “We’ve had a few kids show up that know they’re supposed to wear them, they just didn’t have them. We will provide them for them.”

A statewide mask mandate for Maryland public schools passed the state board of education last week but is not yet in effect. However, Baltimore and Howard Counties and Baltimore City have their own local masking requirements.

Frederick County requires masks too. That school system opened nearly two weeks ago. Frederick County School spokesman Brandon Oland said last week 1,120 of its 44,000 students were out because of COVID. They either tested positive or were quarantined.

“Because we were first, it’s possible that other districts nearby are going to have a similar experience to us as we push forward with students being back for in-person learning throughout the region,” Oland said.

Stacey Fowlkes is feeling pretty good about the school year. She was dropping off her youngest daughter and her girlfriends at Loch Raven High.

“I have faith and as long as you have faith, there’s nothing else to worry about,” Fowlkes said.

But about a mile away at Cromwell Valley Elementary School, Michelle Gardner-Distance wasn’t feeling as jubilant. She was dropping off her 7-year-old son for second grade. Children under 12 cannot be vaccinated. She’s concerned about the delta variant and the high transmission rate.

“I would probably have preferred that the school mandated virtual for the kids for the first semester,” she said.

Baltimore County offered a virtual learning option but you had to enroll by early July. The COVID numbers weren’t so bad then.

“If you didn’t put your kids on virtual before July 2nd, they had to come back to school,” Gardner-Distance said. “It made it a must.”

For those students old enough to be vaccinated, Baltimore County is offering clinics in schools. There is one from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday at New Town High School in Owings Mills. There is another from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Dundalk High.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said family members can get a jab too.

“A lot of times we see our families actually are being led by the students so, we’re confident that we’re doing all the right things to have our students in five days a week where they belong,” Olszewski said.

Baltimore County school officials estimate about 50% of the students who can get a vaccine have done so.

In both Baltimore and Howard Counties, teachers and staff must be vaccinated, or submit to regular COVID testing.

Another round of Maryland school systems will open after Labor Day, including Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.