Car drop-off lines stretched out and around school parking lots, droves of students stepped off yellow buses and classmates greeted themselves with hugs on the first day of classes in Baltimore City and Baltimore County on Monday.
The smiling faces of students, teachers and staff reflected the joy of being back at school, with fewer of the masks, protocols and fears that marked the first two years of the pandemic. Less visible were some of the concerns that many share about teacher vacancies and bus driver shortages.
“The excitement that you see when they get off the bus, and then just what you see trying to find their classes, seeing old friends, those connections — that’s the excitement on the first day of school,” Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams said.
He welcomed students at Randallstown High School on Monday morning. One of the students there was Esther Bajulaiye, a senior. She was looking forward to cross-country meets, track and field events, her STEM club — and ultimately graduation.
“It feels kind of nice but weird at the same time because the summer did go by really fast,” Bajulaiye said. “I did a lot of things this summer that were really beneficial and I kind of wish I had more time before going back to school. But I know that this school year will be a very great school year.”
Meanwhile, Williams said the system is still working on filling teacher vacancies, now down to fewer than 200. Recruiting, he said, is “nonstop.”
“We’re doing all that we can to have a qualified staff member in every classroom,” he said.
Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, was also at Randallstown High. She said the first day of school is always exciting and a time of hope.
“But I am still worried about the openings,” Sexton acknowledged. “There are still hundreds.”
The teachers union leader said school officials worked hard to retain teachers but that the system needs to do all it can to get permanent educators. The union delayed its ratification of the tentative contract agreement because it was unclear how the school system was going to fund a pay raise that the county school board approved.
Sexton said a funding plan needs to get done so teachers know what their salaries will be. A petition the union circulated urges the system to have a solution by the school board’s Sept. 13 meeting.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said teachers deserve a pay raise and finding a solution is the goal. The school system is working on a funding plan, he said, but is not sure when he will see it.
“We have committed that if there is a sustainable long-term plan that will allow us to raise salaries even further, we are 100% behind it,” said Olszewski, who balked at the board’s initial pay raise plan because it only had funding for a year.
He and other county leaders spent Monday afternoon touring the new Rossville Elementary School in Rosedale. A former teacher, Olszewski spoke about the excitement of the first day and said the bus was on time for his daughter, a first grader.
Bryan Epps — president of AFSCME Local 434, which represents bus drivers — said drivers are happy and anticipate a great school year. He cited incentives such as retention bonuses as a reason why.
Later that afternoon, Gboyinde Onijala, a county school system spokesperson, said there didn’t appear to be any major problems transporting students Monday. “So far, so good,” Onijala said. There were some delays involving school buses, she said, but the system was made aware of the challenges and said parents should let them know of any other issues.
Williams said the district made tweaks to the bus schedules based on feedback received from last week’s sixth and ninth grade orientations. The superintendent had a goal of hiring 90 drivers before the first day of classes; as of Monday, it had hired 49 drivers and 14 bus attendants.
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said the transportation issues can’t be solved overnight but that raising driver wages would help. “We have to acknowledge we’re living in a post-COVID world … bus drivers need competitive pay just like everything else. So let’s find a way to do” that.
The lack of bus drivers was also felt in Anne Arundel County, where nearly 50 bus routes had no service, according to the system’s website. Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County schools, said 71 prospective drivers were in the pipeline.
“We are continuing to experience the same frustrations that our colleagues in other counties and other states,” Mosier said. There are enough individuals who have applied to become bus drivers and are now going through the certification process to fill all of the routes, Mosier said, but not every candidate will become a driver.
The state school board adopted regulations that allow school systems to use alternative vehicles instead of school buses, he said. In addition, not all districts have shortages of buses.
Anne Arundel completes its return to classes Tuesday. Monday was also the first day of classes in Howard County.
For the first time this year, Maryland’s schools will see an influx of new dollars from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, landmark legislation aimed at increasing school spending gradually by more than $3 billion a year by 2030. The money comes on top of federal dollars that will boost overall spending significantly over the next few years.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she wants schools to focus on building school communities and academic interventions as well as providing students with more arts classes — music, art and dance — and afternoon activities. School personnel should also work to forge stronger relationships with families and among adults and students in the building, she said. “Because we know when we have nurturing schools, that means everything else flows from that,” Santelises said.
At Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School in Bolton Hill, school system leaders and politicians visited classrooms for an hour to highlight the success of the school. Santelises said Mount Royal has been able to have significant gains on reading.
About 17 city schools closed early due to temperatures that topped 90 degrees in Baltimore. Fourteen of those city schools lack air conditioning, and the remainder had air conditioning that wasn’t working properly.
A five-year plan to provide air conditioning at 75 city school buildings was approved by the state in 2017. Six schools will receive air conditioning this school year. Two school buildings will be closed at the end of this school year, and the remaining six schools are scheduled to be torn down or receive total renovations in the coming years.
At Hampstead Hill Academy on Patterson Park, students were heading into school by 7:30 a.m., weighed down by backpacks filled with school and classroom supplies and first-day jitters.
A small fraction of students and faculty wore masks and no one mentioned COVID-19, for which Baltimore City is the only regional district to require testing for staff and students. Screening testing will be done every other week regardless of vaccination status.
“This seems more typical,” said Principal Matt Hornbeck, expressing relief one hour into the new school year. “We are obsessing over schedules and not the pandemic.”
Seventh grader Morgan Wyte arrived at school and said she was ready to go home. “I was so used to sleeping and and staying up late and I had to get up early this morning,” she said.
Already inside the school, Ellie Macchia said she was looking forward to recess, science and math.
“I want to be a scientist when I grow up,” the third grader said.