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Superintendent Jack R. Smith says the Montgomery County school system still needs to resolve questions about physical distancing. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Montgomery County school leaders are preparing for a five-day in-person school week for the fall, with a remote option for families who prefer to keep their children learning from home, officials said Thursday.

The plan, described during a lengthy school board discussion about reopening amid the pandemic, would be a major step toward the old normal, which Maryland’s largest school system has not experienced since last March.

“That’s what we’re planning for,” said Jack R. Smith, superintendent of the suburban Washington system of more than 161,000 students. “I would predict that masks will be with us for the foreseeable future. I would predict that many of the cleaning and hand-washing and those sorts of protocols will be with us. But a full five-day week schedule.”

Smith said the system still needs to resolve questions about physical distancing. He said he has found health guidance to be too vague about whether six feet of separation between students is needed in schools or fewer feet are sufficient. Some guidance says six feet “to the greatest extent possible,” but not all guidance does, he said.

“I’m also confident that we can have school much, much more like they have been in the past on the first day of the 21-22 school year if we can get this physical distancing issue clarified,” he said.

Will schools fully reopen? It may depend on whether students have to sit six feet apart.

The glimpse of what fall may be like came as a relief to parents who have been pressuring school leaders to speed up the return of students to in-person classes. It was welcomed by others, too.

“I’m very happy to hear we get to have a normal start to the school year,” board member Karla Silvestre said.

As part of its plans, Montgomery described a plan to also create a virtual learning academy, which would be an option for families with health concerns or for those with preferences for remote instruction.

Montgomery County has been slower than many systems to bring students back. Its first major return of students comes Monday, for children in kindergarten through third grade. Most grades would return in April, with some as late as the first days of May.

But school leaders indicated a willingness Thursday to slightly accelerate the return of the last wave of students, so that those in seventh through 11th grade would come back on a rotating schedule beginning the week of April 19.

That change will depend on how smoothly next week’s return goes, officials said.

“Based on what we see, we do believe that . . . it will be feasible,” said Janet Wilson, the school system’s chief of teaching, learning and schools.

Lavanya Sithanandam, a parent and pediatrician who is a leader in the pro-reopening organization Together Again MCPS, said the developments moved in the right direction, but also fell short.

“We found the language to be promising, especially regarding the five days in the fall and the return to traditional learning and their intention to accelerate the return to in-person learning,” she said.

But the return of students this spring will still take six weeks, more than in many other large school systems, she said — and at a time of mental health struggles for many students.

“Their proposal is still deficient and doesn’t reflect the urgency that we need to see to get students in school,” she said.

Small groups of students in special education and career programs returned to school campuses in Montgomery County on March 1. Officials estimated that 730 students were involved.

Teachers and some parents expressed strong concern last month about plans to move to in-person learning in March and April, saying interested employees should have a chance to get vaccinated first and pushing for more staffing and a “coherent” contact-tracing and testing program.

Teachers took a vote of “no confidence” in the reopening plan in mid-February.

Teachers in Montgomery County vote ‘no confidence’ in reopening plan

In another move discussed at the Thursday board meeting, school officials pushed back by two days an April 6 return of students in prekindergarten and grades four, five, six and 12.

April 6 falls immediately after spring break — March 29 to April 5 — and officials worry that many families who go out of town could potentially return infected. That group will now come in person starting April 8, with April 6 and 7 designated for remote learning.

The school system has cautioned staff and parents that state health officials want people who travel outside of Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington to take a coronavirus test within 72 hours of returning.

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