Baltimore County is the latest Maryland school system grappling with whether to continue its virtual learning program and how to pay for it.

With flagging enrollment and federal funds set to run out next year, the programs that kept public education running through the pandemic face an uncertain future in the county and city, even as a handful of other districts continue to invest in theirs.

Baltimore County Public Schools has proposed lowering the number of students allowed to learn virtually, from more than 1,600 to just under 700, funding the program with what’s left of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — money the government gave to school systems to help relieve financial burdens caused by the pandemic. The funds expire in September 2024. The school board is set to decide next week on whether to accept the proposed reduction or find the funds to keep it going as is.

The emergency relief fund covered the program from spring 2021 through the 2022-23 school year, which was supposed to be its final year, but staff say there’s still a need. Myriam Yarbrough, deputy superintendent, said virtual programs support students with physical and mental health needs, and accommodate staffing shortages and family preferences.

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According to Maryland State Department of Education, 12,277 students around the state were enrolled in a virtual program as of June 1, but many have not performed well compared to in-person students. The failure rates for virtual middle school students were significantly higher in all subjects compared to the rest of the student body last school year. Virtual high school students failed more in math and science at the time.

All but two school systems in the state kept their virtual learning programs. Enrollment in the virtual learning programs this school year varied among the districts from 14 students to 2,659. Fifteen districts have fewer than 500 students learning virtually.

Anne Arundel County is among the districts continuing virtual learning for the long haul. Its virtual academy, where students receive “real-time, synchronous, high-quality instruction” from certified educators serves 562 students, according to its website.

Maneka Monk, Anne Arundel’s senior manager of communications, said the school system, with 85,000 students, also used emergency relief funds to pay for it this school year. Moving forward, the $5.6 million program will be fully funded by the system’s fiscal 2024 operating budget, which the board recently passed.

“We have to diversify our options to meet student need,” Monk said.

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In Montgomery County, home to the biggest school system in the state, 5,161 students of the 158,000 enrolled have signed up for its virtual tutoring program, paid for by emergency relief funds. The system intends to keep funding the program after the emergency funds run out, according to Jessica Baxter, a spokesperson for the district.

Howard County, on the other hand, chose not to have a virtual program this school year and will not have one next school year. The system only offers online learning for classes like Differential Equations that are “so high level very few students (if any) take it in each school and very few teachers are able to teach it,” said Brian Bassett, director of communication and engagement for Howard’s school system.

Baltimore City’s school system has not yet decided if it will continue its virtual learning program, which serves 1,218 of its 77,000 students, according to spokesperson Sherry Christian.

In Baltimore County last year, a survey found 70% of parents wanted a second year of virtual learning, but only 30% of students wanted to continue. At the time, 3,000 students were enrolled.

Of its 111,000 students, the district’s current virtual learning program serves 1,113 full-time and 517 part-time students in grades 1-12. It costs $16.5 million.

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In the smaller program district leaders proposed, there would be 695 available seats among students in grades 4-12. Some of those seats will be reserved for students with physical and mental health needs. The rest of the students would be picked randomly through a lottery system. It would cost $6.7 million in emergency relief funds.

The emergency relief funds contribute $93.9 million to the school system’s $2.6 billion proposed budget. Board members questioned if more relief funds could be used for the virtual learning program, but there’s already a plan in place for how to spend that money, according to Mary McComas, chief academic officer. If the board chose to fund the virtual learning program at its current size, they’d have to figure out where to pull $10 million to make up the difference. It could mean removing staff like safety assistants and IEP facilitators, district leaders said.

“When you’re talking about removing those funds, we are largely talking about people that are already in place in schools,” Yarbrough said.

Board members were split on the decision at their last meeting, with Dr. Erin Hager supporting the proposed reduction and Board Chair Jane Lichter and Vice Chair Robin Harvey concerned about the students who’d be left out. They’ll vote on Tuesday.

kristen.griffith@thebaltimorebanner.com

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