Teachers, staff and students returned to Frederick County public schools on Tuesday, and now we wait, watch and hope.
The school system and the whole community have been aiming toward this day, and now all of us hope that it was the right decision at the right time. All the signs look good.
For the first time since schools were abruptly shuttered at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, thousands of students returned to classrooms.
For now, the system will operate in a hybrid mode, with groups of students rotating the days they attend in-person learning. About 25 to 35 percent of the student population will be in schools on any given day.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week gave its blessing for schools to reopen, as long as a range of precautions are in place, citing a growing body of evidence that in-person schools can operate safely.
Even if community infection rates were high, the agency said, elementary schools can partially open, and middle and high schools can as well if a strong testing program is in place.
The infection rate here in Frederick County has declined to almost 5 percent of those tested, a much safer range since the alarming peaks above 10 percent in December and January.
The CDC says the most important safety measure for reopening is mandatory and proper use of masks for students, teachers and staffers. It also recommends maintaining six feet of distance between people.
Some critics say the plans are too aggressive and some say they do not go far enough. But at least we know that these recommendations come from the scientists and have not been filtered through the political advisers to President Biden, as CDC guidelines too often were during the Trump administration.
FCPS staff have been preparing for the return of students for several weeks, and their plans seemed to jibe with the recommendations of the CDC, even though the work began before the federal agency made its recommendations.
The county Board of Education was briefed last week by six school principals, who detailed the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, staggered arrival and dismissal strategies and distanced meal time plans.
Jamie Aliveto, executive director of System Accountability and School Administration, told the board the work had been going on for several weeks, with principals being responsible for completing key tasks. Central office employees have also visited every school to make sure that plans are being implemented correctly, Aliveto said.
The principals shared how each of their schools are handling cleaning and disinfecting. Schools have developed individual plans for arrivals, dismissals and transition between classes, based on how their buildings are designed.
Meal plans are also unique to each school. Ballenger Creek Elementary, for example, will have students in the same grade level eating together at socially distant desks in the cafeteria, while other students will eat in their classroom.
Board members asked if teachers would be responsible for breakfast or lunch duty if students are eating in classrooms, and Aliveto said they will. However, she added, because of a higher risk being around unmasked students during these times, teachers will have access to double the PPE.
At this point, parents are still being given the option of having their children return to school or to continue with distance learning at home. FCPS estimated that a bit more than half of all the children will begin with the hybrid model.
It is the first step for the school system, but normal operation is still likely a long way off. Full return of all students and staff to schools will probably have to wait until many more people are vaccinated against the virus.
School administrators and the board members will need to keep a close watch on the data from the community and from the staff and children. We need to be vigilant and flexible as we are making our way to a new normal.