As the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) Board of Education weighed reopening options on January 14, board members acknowledged that no decision would make everyone happy. After debating for roughly five hours, they voted to implement a hybrid learning program for as many students as possible, health and safety metrics permitting, no later than March 1.
That decision followed the advice of AACPS Superintendent George Arlotto, who learned from Anne Arundel County Department of Health officials that teachers and staff can start being vaccinated by February 1, if not sooner. Citing a conversation with the county’s health officer, Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, Arlotto said the process includes giving two doses to each employee who wants to be vaccinated. The doses would be administered weeks apart.
A hybrid reopening plan is expected to utilize A days and B days, allowing half of the student population to be in school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half to return on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be used to clean buildings. Students would be required to wear masks and practice social distancing inside schools.
“We would get our priority small group students back first,” Arlotto said. “They would be … our specialty groups, our [Center for Applied Technology] centers and then our pre-K to five educators and those staffs and then identifying, possibly, grades six and 12, and then adding some of the middle and high school groups over time because the bottom line is … the Department of Health is just not going to have enough vaccines to give everybody all at once.”
Arlotto is hopeful that the fall sports season can be salvaged in early spring and a spring season can also happen “if all goes according to plan with availability of the vaccinations.” Other extracurricular activities would also resume. AACPS has to rely on the Anne Arundel County Department of Health and other entities to provide the vaccine.
Arlotto’s recommendation came after a public hearing. Teachers and parents made their cases for both returning and staying closed.
“I miss my students. I miss my kids. I miss the families. I miss my teammates,” said third-grade teacher Jerry Groves. “We all need to be back in the buildings, but folks, we have numbers currently that are out of control … it would be simply irresponsible to open schools when the curve is pointing straight up instead of being flattened.”
Meade High School teacher Jarrod Combs cited concerns about ventilation in old buildings. Annapolis High School teacher Charis Cephas said she doesn’t want to see AACPS reopen only to close again.
Many parents voiced support for reopening.
“I have friends and family members everywhere in the country and the vast majority of them are in school,” said Arlene Reuss, a mother of four young kids. “So we need to stop thinking of all the roadblocks. It is possible for kids and staff to be in school safely and that’s where our focus needs to be.”
The mother of a high school senior, Lori Smith said her daughter is becoming more introverted and needs the choice to return to the classroom.
“High school is more than academics; it is learning to become an adult, which comes with interacting with other teens, watching social cues, working together and so on,” Smith said. “The introverts are retreating back into themselves.”
Board member Joanna Bache Tobin addressed the criticism that private schools opened sooner than public schools.
“I chair the board of trustees at a private school, and I’m here to tell you there is no comparison between what a private school can do and what a public school system can do,” she said. “Those are apples and oranges.”
The Board of Education’s vice president and District 5 representative, Dana Schallheim, is eager to get kids back in schools, but she called it a “myth” that teachers are not working hard.
AACPS has roughly 12,000 employees, so the next step is to determine how many of them want to be vaccinated.
“It is not a mandate, it is a personal choice, but we need the raw data to give to the Department of Health,” Arlotto said.
If a student tests positive for COVID-19, Arlotto said AACPS will consult the Anne Arundel County Department of Health to decide if a class needs to be quarantined, or worst case, the entire school needs to quarantine.
The Board of Education asked Arlotto to provide an update on reopening implementation and health metrics by February 17.
“We’ll adapt and adjust as our teachers have,” Arlotto said. “They’ve done a phenomenal job. I do not believe that we are failing our children in the virtual environment and I do not believe we will fail our children in a hybrid environment. I believe we will continue to love and care for our students and educate them to the best of our ability. I think they’ll continue to learn and that they’ll continue to thrive.”