Montgomery County school officials have given tentative approval to a plan for phasing in on-campus learning in 2021. On July 9, 2020, the school system gave reporters a tour, shown here, of College Gardens Elementary School to show room arrangements, sanitizing stations, and other measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Maryland’s largest school system could bring some students in special education back to campuses Jan. 12 and begin phasing in a combined approach to in-person learning Feb. 1, under a preliminary plan tied to health metrics that was approved Tuesday.

The plan tentatively agreed to by the Montgomery County Board of Education is a step toward returning children to bricks-and-mortar schools, at least part time, amid the pandemic. A final vote is slated for Dec. 3, with a parent survey and a special staff portal to be launched this week.

But whether the timeline holds is an open question, with coronavirus cases on the rise in the suburban county of more than a million residents and across the state.

On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced a return to several restrictions that were in place earlier in the pandemic. They include reduced indoor dining capacity for restaurants and a stricter travel advisory.

Earlier Tuesday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) issued an executive order tightening restrictions on businesses, including stores and restaurants, as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The County Council approved the action.

The new restrictions came as the school system was looking toward the possibility of opening its buildings in 2021, though school officials said repeatedly that health metrics would be key.

State officials and many parents have pressed the system to move more quickly to formulate a plan for reopening classrooms. Some critics say schools should already be open, especially for the most vulnerable children, while other families say they are glad to stay the course with virtual learning until the health outlook changes markedly.

Maryland state superintendent says students should be in school ‘right now’

Eight months into the pandemic, many parents and advocates worry that student learning and mental health are in decline as all-virtual learning continues.

School board member Karla Silvestre (At Large) pressed the issue of health metrics, saying that though she appreciated the need to rely on local and state health authorities for guidance, she believed “we have to learn to live with this pandemic and that school — for those children who are not benefiting from online learning — is an essential service.”

Silvestre asked for a comparison of health metrics and decisions among area school systems, starting with Fairfax and Howard counties.

The school system’s chief of engagement, innovation and operations, Derek Turner, said that providing that information would be complicated, because each jurisdiction had its own standards, not always based on similar data. “It’s really difficult to match them up,” he said.

“Jurisdictions right around us haven’t returned yet, and so their metrics are still evolving,” Turner said, citing Howard and Frederick counties and D.C. Public Schools.

Montgomery was “neither more strict or less strict than the others,” he said, but rather “in the central area, relative to large school systems in the state.”

Schools Superintendent Jack R. Smith said the challenges lay not just in the size of the 161,000-student school system, but also in the wide variation in coronavirus case rates across Zip codes in the 500-square-mile county.

Silvestre urged the system to look for creative ways to make reopening possible. “So we wouldn’t think about shutting down the police force,” she said. “I don’t think we should completely shut down education.”

In the broader region, moves to in-person learning have been uneven and sometimes halting.

D.C. Public Schools recently rolled back its effort to begin in-person learning for up to 7,000 elementary students this month. Arlington County delayed, too, and Prince George’s County plans a second-semester return, if coronavirus numbers allow it.

But Loudoun County’s public schools have already brought back roughly 7,000 students in kindergarten through second grade, with an expansion expected.

Fairfax County’s schools superintendent is recommending a return of students across grades over the next three months but is receiving a mixed reaction. The Fairfax County School Board wants the move to happen faster, but teachers are urging a slower transition.

In Montgomery, Chris Lloyd, the president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the teachers union, said educators are focused on making sure that when they return, the environment is safe for them and for students.

He said that because the conversation has been about health and safety as the priority — and because health metrics were recently released — his members are “anxious but informed.”

Montgomery’s tentative plan would start bringing students back Jan. 12 — if health conditions allow — with small groups of students in special education; as well as certain students in career programs who require hands-on experience for licensure; and other special student populations.

When larger groups of students are brought back, possibly Feb. 1, it will happen gradually, and they will attend on a part-time basis, in a setup that combines in-person and virtual learning.

The first phase is to include kindergartners and first-graders, sixth-graders, high school students who are not on track for graduation, and additional students in career and special-education programs.

A second phase is to include prekindergarten, second and third grades, seventh grade, and 11th and 12th grades. A third phase would complete the process with fourth and fifth grades, and eighth, ninth and 10th grades.

School officials could not be precise about the timing between phases, saying it would be two weeks or more but possibly less. They introduced the plan at a board meeting Friday and received more than 500 public comments in four days.

Hannah Natanson and Perry Stein contributed to this report.

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