Down the hall, other children were learning the English language, following the lead of teacher Alicia Raburn as she showed how to break words apart, as a prelude to getting at individual sounds. Snow-man. Post-card. Sand-box.
“Egg-plant!” chimed in Grissel Orozco, a first-grader with a ponytail and sparkly shoes, not missing a beat.
This was the new school year in rural Caroline County, where on-campus learning is being phased in amid the coronavirus pandemic, with priority to groups of children who struggle the most doing school by computer screen: those in special education, English-language learners and the homeless or displaced.
Other school systems are moving in the same direction, across Maryland and in places beyond. For many, it is a step toward helping especially vulnerable children and a starting point for more campus-based learning. But in many places, the tension between education and broader health risks is a constant.
“Our students need an education, and we need to have them back in school,” said Caroline County Superintendent Patricia Saelens. “That is my highest priority, to bring as many students back as possible in a safe and healthy manner.”
The county’s approach has been touted by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon, who began pressing Maryland’s 24 school systems to move toward some level of in-person instruction in late August.
The drumbeat has not stopped. The pair showed up for Caroline County’s first day, on Sept. 8. Last week, they toured schools in Frederick County.
“All across the state, we’re seeing special-needs kids who really need the hands-on face-to-face instruction,” Hogan said at a stop in Frederick. “We’re seeing kids who are challenged in other ways . . . We’re not trying to bring every student back into the classroom. Some of them can do very well in distance learning. But there are a lot of kids that — with the small classrooms, with teachers being there to work with them — it’s been a tremendous benefit.”
At the same appearance, Salmon announced the return of fall season high school sports, with practices allowed to resume Oct. 7 and games Oct. 27. The state has rolled out a program offering $10 million in grants to school systems doing on-campus instruction this fall.
But not everyone thinks the time is right.
In the Washington region, Prince George’s County, with the state’s second-largest system, is staying the course with plans to remain in distance learning through January, a spokeswoman said.
Montgomery County, with the state’s largest school system, inched toward in-person learning Friday, giving its labor unions a required 45-day notice. Officials said the notice did not mean in-person learning would begin in 45 days, but rather that it would open the way for bargaining and planning for an eventual return.
Montgomery had previously raised the idea of opening to small groups of students in special education and English-language learners if health conditions allowed.
For some families, getting children with special needs back into schools can’t come soon enough.
Chiara Jaffe, a parent in Montgomery County, has been troubled that the system has no clear plan to offer in-person instruction for children like her son, who is autistic and has Down syndrome. “They are actually losing skills they once had,” she said.
Priority should go to those who have lost the most, including English-language learners, students of color and students with disabilities, said Diego Uriburu, a co-founder of the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence in Montgomery.
“Some families are desperate to have their children go back to school,” he said. “But others are very concerned because covid is disproportionately affecting families of color.”
While Caroline County has only had 652 cases since March, compared with 22,421 in Montgomery County, it is more similar when population is figured in. Caroline has 1,983 cases per 100,000 population, compared with Montgomery’s 2,156 cases, according to tracking by The Washington Post.
Even in Caroline County, the number of on-campus learners is a fraction of the school system’s 5,600-student enrollment — about 10 to 15 percent. Distance learning is the prevailing approach for now.
That’s partly because the shift takes time and social distancing takes space. Buses are running at half capacity — 24 students each. Those who are on campus come four days a week. All students, whether all-virtual or in-person, spend Wednesdays at home doing independent work assigned by their teachers, called “asynchronous learning.”
The system is bringing students back in waves.
First came groups of students in special education and English- language classes. A week later, students with connectivity problems arrived, followed by select students in career and technology programs. In October, children in kindergarten and prekindergarten will follow — and after that, first- and second-graders.
“Then we take a deep breath,” said Saelens, the superintendent.
At Greensboro Elementary, the cafeteria has been transformed into a giant study hall of sorts, with lines painted on the floor to mark out space for 48 desks. Fourth- and fifth-graders spend their school days quietly doing their distance learning — with steady Internet service. Their teachers are elsewhere in the same building delivering online lessons to both these students and others who are studying at home.
“I can’t do anything at home that needs a constant WiFi connection, because we don’t have one,” said Christopher Leach, a fifth-grader. He was glad to be at school, he said, with one exception: “I have to wake up early.”
Many teachers at the school are giving lessons virtually because their students remain at home. Some teach, with school-age children nearby, doing their own distance learning.
Teacher Colleen Daly was all energy and enthusiasm as she Zoomed from her classroom with pre-kindergartners. Earlier that morning, she did a read-aloud of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” for her class of 13.
In the afternoon, it was more individualized — groups of one to three. She asked a young girl about her drawing of a favorite animal.
“Tell me what pets you have at home,” Daly said.
The girl did not hold back.
“Two puppies!” Daly thrilled, saying she also has puppies.
“Do you love to snuggle with them?” the teacher asked.
Amy Anderson, president of the Caroline County Educators’ Association, said the county has 500 teachers and only four are teleworking. More might do so if they thought they would get permission, she said.
Teachers have had mixed feelings about coming back amid the pandemic: Some were terribly afraid, others did not feel strongly and still others supported the idea, Anderson said.
“I think teachers are getting used to it,” she said. “It’s part of teachers’ nature to adjust and do what’s best for the students.” But teachers were essentially made to go back, she said. “We didn’t really have a choice,” she said.
It was not easy to qualify for telework; teachers had to show medical documentation of why they could not be in a school building.
For now, Greensboro Elementary has about a third of its 740 enrollment back on campus — with 42 English-language learners, 31 students in special education and more than 140 students who lack connectivity at home. The school is 47 percent Hispanic and 45 percent White. Seventy percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
“Whatever we could do to bring even the smallest amount of normalcy to kids was important,” Principal Dawn Swann said.
To get ready for the school year, the school’s staff spent a lot of time measuring out rooms and spaces, moving furniture around and switching out classroom tables for individual desks that can be spaced apart. The building has an open-space floor plan — “a plus,” Swann said.
Cleaning efforts have intensified. The school keeps to detailed plans for arrival, dismissal and restroom use. Families do temperature checks at home. And children wear masks all day, except during breakfast and lunch.
“The kids are very compliant,” Swann said. Before the year began, she was among those skeptical about “little people keeping their masks on.”
“But they do,” she said.
In a period of three weeks, 11 students across the 10-school system have shown potential symptoms for the novel coronavirus, but test results have so far been negative, according to school officials.
If a child shows possible symptoms, other students seated near that child have had to isolate at home because bus seating is not always six feet apart. Once at school, six feet of distancing is maintained, school officials said.
Three staff members have tested positive since school started, but none was working with children, according to the school system.
Lisa Durham, who has two children in the school system, said her son with special needs is already back at middle school and soon her second-grade daughter will return to Greensboro Elementary.
“They’ve done a great job of identifying the greatest needs and doing everything they can,” she said. Taking classes in person is a judgment call, she said. “I think it’s just making good decisions and weighing whether an activity is necessary or not. School is necessary to me.”