It’s back to school for Baltimore-area students. Will this new school year finally feel normal?

Published on: August 26, 2022 10:22 AM EDT|Updated on: August 26, 2022 11:39 AM EDT

An adult walks a child to the front of a school building.

After 2 1/2 years of upheaval, Baltimore-area students and teachers say they are ready to leave their pandemic hangovers behind and enjoy the coming school year that begins Monday.

Whether that first-day-of-school promise — the feel of a new textbook, the gaggle of friends gathering in the cafeteria, the mystique of a cool new teacher — will survive the test of a waning pandemic is too soon to tell.

There’s still an undercurrent of concerns that won’t allow school leaders to move on completely just yet: teacher vacancies, continued health protocols and worry over student academic gaps.

And yet, there’s a palpable feeling of optimism that hasn’t been around since the fall of 2019, when the pandemic was still months away.

“I think in general most students are pretty optimistic [that] this year will be the most normal year we have had since COVID started,” said Ethan Eblaghie, a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute junior. One of his major concerns: the bell schedule changes, a student issue unrelated to the virus.

Frederick County schools, already back in session this week, have been “eerily normal,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing most teachers in the state.

Howard County students also return to classes Monday, followed by those in Anne Arundel County on Tuesday and Carroll County on Sept. 6.

“More than any time since the pandemic started, the feeling of going into the school year is that much closer to normal, whatever we deem normal to be,” said Maryland State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury. In fact, some educators are cautioning that the schools should use the lessons of the pandemic to improve schools, not to return to the way things were in 2019.

If the pandemic is receding, some of its disruptions have not.

Continued vacancies

Baltimore City and Baltimore County still have about 200 teachers each to hire, the result of both vacancies from last school year and the addition of positions because of new state and federal dollars. School system leaders said they’ll be filling vacancies by hiring long-term substitutes and having retired teachers and central office staff fill in.

Sonja Santelises, the CEO of the Baltimore City school system, said the city has hired about 40 teachers from the Philippines who won’t arrive until Oct. 1, while Baltimore County is using college student interns to take over classrooms.

While there’s been a lot of buzz about teacher shortages nationwide, it may be inflated, said Heather Schwartz, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a think tank.

Some of Maryland’s issues are the result of systemic problems in the teacher pipeline that were getting worse during the pandemic, said Choudhury. In-state colleges don’t produce enough teachers each year to fill the vacancies, which has required Maryland to import teachers. Over the past decade, there’s been a 41% decline in the number of students in those educator programs.

For the last few years, Maryland schools have consistently been losing about 10% of the teaching force each year, with Baltimore City and Baltimore County running 1 or 2 percentage points above that level, according to Maryland State Department of Education data. Rural counties on the Eastern Shore have had difficulty holding on to teachers, as has Prince George’s County. High school and special education teachers are particularly needed.

About 10 days before the start of school, Baltimore City schools had about 220 positions vacant. Some of those vacancies included new teaching positions that were added because of an influx of state aid under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation. As a result, students at some city schools might see more teachers — reading specialists and interventionists — than they have ever seen before.

Some well-known schools with strong principals in the city had no teacher turnover this year, said Santelises, adding that those schools weren’t necessarily in the wealthier parts of the city. At other schools, there remained a significant number of vacancies among the teaching staff, an issue that Santelises is working to help them address. In some cases, school staff can fill in. In others, they may be able to combine high school classes with virtual instruction, or find a long-term substitute teacher with the right credentials.

“We still have schools that we are really concerned about, but I do think it is a testament to the early work of principals,” who began hiring for positions in early spring, that about 700 teachers have been hired so far, she said.

Baltimore County initially faced severe staffing shortages, but as of Tuesday had fewer than 200 teaching positions and about 50 bus driver vacancies to fill. The number of those vacancies stood at 400 only a week ago, prompting the system to get creative.

For instance: Non-teaching elementary school staff were assigned to classroom teaching positions; 97 certified central office staff are filling in for critical need areas, such as special education; and students from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Towson University and Morgan State University will intern as long-term substitute teachers in some schools under the supervision of school staff.

“Interns are provided with university support during the experience and BCPS has the opportunity to hire them as permanent staff after successful completion,” Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams said during a recent board meeting.

Interns typically start in the spring, but Williams said in an interview that the colleges allowed a significant number to start in the fall.

The county has addressed the shortage on several fronts: The Kelly employment agency provided 133 long-term substitutes; recent retirees were asked to return; some high school courses are being offered virtually; 355 secondary teachers have chosen to teach an extra period for more money; hiring events are ongoing; and each school will have one permanent substitute to help with emergency coverage needs.

During a presentation at the county school board’s Aug. 18 meeting, Williams reported that 29 schools were considered critical staffing areas and 11 schools had at least 10 vacancies. But the system is making sure “every classroom has a qualified teacher on the first day of school,” he said.

To support staff dealing with the shortages, the county school board voted for a budget transfer that would provide staff with pay increases. The first year of raises would cost nearly $50 million, an amount that would be covered by the school system’s surplus funds. But county leaders noted that the raises would cost a half-billion dollars over five years. The county executive criticized the move as irresponsible, noting that it wasn’t clear where the rest of the funds would come from. So the future of the pay increases is in doubt.

“Right now, I would have to work with my unions and the board,” Williams said. “But I’m looking at some other alternatives if, in fact, we’re not going to get the full approval of the budget transfer.”

He said he hoped to have alternative plans for funding later this year.

COVID mitigations eased

COVID hasn’t gone away, but with its severe health effects mitigated by vaccinations, booster shots and acquired immunity, school systems are setting aside some of the strict protocols of recent years.

“We are really excited by our senior year. We haven’t had that high school experience,” said Merin Thomas, a member of the Maryland state school board who attends Wicomico County schools.

Educators remain concerned that mental health issues that emerged during remote instruction and led to increased behavioral problems last year will return.

“What is not going to feel normal [are] the lingering effects of mental health” issues, Choudhury said.

He said he expected unmet mental health needs would continue to be a problem, and that schools needed to make permanent changes to ensure that their students’ needs were met.

“The behavioral interventions and supports aren’t there. The behaviors that students are exhibiting … are fundamentally different from what we have experienced in the past,” said Cristina Duncan Evans, chair of the teachers chapter of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

She said she is also concerned about adherence to COVID mitigation strategies, particularly making sure that air quality is maintained in classrooms and buildings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended what COVID protocols should look like in the classroom, and Baltimore-region school districts are following suit with most of the guidance.

The CDC’s Aug. 11 guidance removes recommendations to quarantine (except in high-risk settings), cohort students, and conduct routine test screening. When it comes to masking, detailed instructions were added that include wearing masks when COVID cases in the community are high and when a person has been, or suspects having been, exposed to someone who has the virus.

Baltimore City is the only regional district to require COVID testing for staff and students. Screening testing will be done every other week regardless of vaccination status. But, like the other districts, the city is not dismissing students who are close contacts of someone with the virus if they are asymptomatic.

Each Maryland school district had to update its reopening plan. Some counties clearly state that regular contact tracing will no longer be conducted; that personal protective equipment, like masks, will be available if needed; and that the system will communicate with parents if there has been an exposure or outbreak.

Hopeful future

Roah Hassan, a student member of Baltimore County’s school board, said students may feel like it’s back to normal, but some are still haunted by the experience of the last few years.

“I think everyone has that, like, PTSD, anxiety,” she said. “But I do think that we are starting to feel like we’re back to normal, like we are going back to the way things were, which means, hopefully, our system will go back to normal and maybe exceed what we think normal means.”

Hassan said she personally feels on track with academics, but some students don’t. And even those who have graduated do not feel fully prepared for the real world.

“The biggest thing that students come to me and talk to me about in regards to a gap is financial readiness, college and career readiness,” the rising senior said. “So if we’re going to talk about the COVID gap, we also have to talk about that college and career gap, because that’s the biggest thing that we’re experiencing.”

Still, she remains hopeful for the school year. It may be a rocky start, but as an optimist, she hopes this year is better.

“My biggest words of wisdom on ‘back to school’ is just keep an open mind and open heart and encounter everything with a little bit of empathy,” Hassan said.

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