Despite a long-anticipated “return to normal” last school year, a lot has changed at Baltimore-area schools. New leaders were announced, school violence was addressed, vacancies were filled and salaries were raised.

With the first day of school right around the corner (Aug. 28 for most counties, and Sept. 5 for Carroll), here’s a rundown of what parents should know, with links to further reading to help you get caught up.

Half Maryland’s school superintendents left their jobs last year

Whether it was the pandemic, tensions with schools boards or coincidence, half the school superintendents in Maryland have left their jobs in the past year, including several in the Baltimore region. That turnover outpaces a national turnover rate of 30% in the past three years. And there could be more coming in the next year.

Myriam Yarbrough took over this summer from Darryl Williams in Baltimore County after a newly seated school board decided to go with an insider over qualified out-of-state candidates. Williams served for four years.

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Mark Bedell, who did a brief stint as Baltimore County school administrator before moving to a superintendency in Kansas City Public School, became Anne Arundel County’s new leader only a year ago, as did Cynthia McCabe, Carroll County’s superintendent.

Sonja Santelises has just completed seven years as CEO of the Baltimore City schools, making her the longest-serving superintendent in the city in at least three decades. She has one more year on her contract and has said she will leave when she feels her work is completed.

Montgomery and Prince George’s also got new leaders in the past year.

More students are getting free school meals

All Baltimore County public school students will be offered free meals at school this coming year, continuing a practice begun during the pandemic.

About two thirds of students qualify for free school meals, making the county eligible for the federal community eligibility program that will subsidize meals. The county will also offer a small amount of funding.

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Baltimore City has provided free meals to students for the past several years. Other school districts provide free and reduced-price meals to students from low-income families.

Schools are fighting the teacher shortage with higher salaries

It might be good time to enter the teaching field, since starting salaries have recently gone up in a few districts in the region. It’s not only in preparation for major education reform that raises starting salaries to $60,000, but to also give school systems a competitive edge against one another.

Baltimore and Howard counties could be more attractive to new teachers since they have the highest starting salary at $58,500. Anne Arundel is a close second at $58,161. Baltimore City would have been the highest, but disagreement arose during union negotiations, which are ongoing.

Salary bumps and bonuses could have made a difference on the hiring front since districts are reporting improvements in filling hundreds of teacher vacancies. As of Aug. 9, though, Baltimore City still had 227 unfilled teacher jobs. Cristina Duncan Evans, chapter chair of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said being short-staffed is something they’re used to. Better pay would’ve evened the playing field, but the city “is now competing more intensely with school districts that have better working conditions, more efficient management, and a more supportive relationship with their employees,” she added.

School buses are getting more drivers, fewer riders

Bus drivers also experienced a shortage last school year, but the situation is improving. Anne Arundel County had 47 routes without drivers last year. The school system told the Capital Gazette on Aug. 14 they still need 14 more, but all routes will be covered.

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Like Anne Arundel, Baltimore County also struggled with a driver shortage last August. Improvements were announced by October and the long-time vacant transportation director position was recently filled.

In Howard County, parents and drivers weren’t happy with changes to its transportation policy that resulted, in part, from later start times for high schoolers. It expanded walk zones, forcing 3,500 students who used to depend on buses to find other ways to school.

New school buildings are making waves, even if they’re not yet open

New schools are on the way, pushing thousands of students into different school zones even though the new buildings have yet to open. Anne Arundel announced in July a plan to draw boundaries for two new schools, redraw boundaries for 48 other schools, and improve overcrowded schools in the northern part of the county. Old Mill West High School and West County Elementary School are expected to open during the fall of 2024.

Baltimore County had multiple school boundary studies last year, including one in the central and northeast area to accommodate a new middle school and renovations of Pine Grove Middle School. The redistricting process included 11 middle schools, a 42-person committee, a confusing school closure and six months of people’s time. The new lines will go into effect during the 2024-2025 school year. But the process is soon to start again with a central area capacity relief study for 19 elementary schools and a northwest area boundary study that includes seven elementary schools.

Baltimore City schools, which started a $1 billion campaign to renovate or rebuild schools about a decade ago, will soon finish Northwood Elementary School, its 28th project, at a cost of $59 million. The last 21st Century Schools renovation dollars — about $117 million — will be spent on Frederick Douglass High School, which will be the first of the city’s most beloved and historic high schools to be renovated in the coming years. Renovations to Douglass are expected to begin in a year.

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Meanwhile, Howard County’s newest school, Guilford Park High School in Jessup, will start classes for the first time Aug. 28.

With violence on the rise, schools are stepping up safety

After two years of concerns about youth mental health and discipline in schools following the pandemic, some school systems are stepping up efforts to keep students safe.

In Baltimore County, Yarbrough said she is planning to put safety assistants, who screen visitor access and help maintain class attendance, in some elementary schools. In addition, Yarbrough is planning to revise the school system’s code of conduct and apply consequences consistently. This comes after school fights posted on social media, reports of bullying, and the discovery of loaded guns on campus sparked concern from parents in Baltimore County, who held a town hall to rally for change last fall.

Baltimore City schools “has expanded the capacity of our attendance team to support schools, and we have expanded our middle school athletics programs,” as a way to increase safety and reduce violence, said Sherry Christian, a school system spokeswoman. Providing support to students to get them to attend school regularly reduces the number of discipline issues, she said.

The school system is also focused on making sure protocols on bullying, harassment and intimidation are followed to improve safety.

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Youth violence in Baltimore this year has soared, even as the city’s homicide rate has declined.

Between January 1 and the end of June, 80 teenagers between 13 and 18 years old had become shooting victims. The city has started taking steps to stem the violence and is instituting measures in several high schools in the coming months to try to quell disputes between teenagers during school hours so fights don’t escalate to violence once students have left school.

A number of the shootings last school year occurred just blocks from school after dismissal. Gun violence inside a city school or inside any school in the region has been exceedingly rare.

Violence inside the area schools appeared to worsen in the 2021-2022 school year, particularly in Baltimore County, but it is unclear whether that continued last school year because suspension numbers for last school year have not yet been released.

School districts are discussing book bans

In several Maryland counties, small groups of parents are asking their school boards to ban books from school curriculums and libraries, expressing concerns about books that discuss LGBTQ topics.

Earlier this year in Montgomery County, parents filed a lawsuit saying that their rights to religious freedom were being violated because the county is not allowing them to opt their children out of lessons discussing LGBTQ subjects, The Washington Post reported.

In Baltimore County and Carroll County school board meetings, parents have read portions of books that discuss transgender issues. Carroll County’s Moms for Liberty has requested the removal of 53 books from school libraries.

School officials are reviewing the books, according to The Baltimore Sun.

These talks come on the heels of efforts in Carroll and Anne Arundel counties to restrict which flags can be displayed at school. Carroll’s school board voted last year to prohibit rainbow pride flags. Anne Arundel’s board this summer narrowly rejected a proposal to limit flags in its schools.

COVID outbreaks may be treated more like routine illnesses

COVID-19 policies have largely been left to local school systems, and it appears there will be something of an honor system for families this year — keep sick students home and test them yourself.

No system is requiring anyone to mask, and none plan to routinely test students or staff, though some will stock tests for those who want them. Some plan to send kits home with students.

The systems aren’t saying at what point in an outbreak they’d send anyone home for COVID-19 or any condition, or when they’d let them back. Most pre-COVID policies asked students to remain home until their fever has been gone for a day and symptoms are resolving. Post COVID-19, the advice has been stay home for five days past the onset of symptoms and mask for 10 days.

Baltimore City school officials, for example, said they will address COVID-19 and other outbreaks on a case-by-case basis. They plan to quickly deploy advice from health officials and other experts, including those from the Johns Hopkins University, said André Riley, a schools spokesman.

Most counties and Baltimore also are holding COVID-19 and back-to-school clinics at schools or through their health departments, and flu clinics are expected in the fall.

Students have recovered from learning loss in English, but they have a long way to go in math

Three quarters of Maryland public school students failed the state’s math tests in grades three through eight this spring, an indication of just how much math students didn’t learn during the year of Zoom classes, and how difficult it has been for teachers to catch them up.

Meanwhile, nearly half — 47% — of students in the state passed the English language arts test in grades three through eight.

Students passed the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program English test at nearly twice the rate they passed the math test.

The math results underscore what appears to be an underlying issue with math instruction or curriculum that existed long before the pandemic and has yet to be explained. Education leaders have acknowledged the problem, and state and local school district leaders are just now beginning to address it. The Maryland State Department of Education is offering school districts grants of up to $10 million to establish “a permanent tutoring corps” to help struggling math students.

Meredith Cohn contributed reporting.