ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MD — With coronavirus cases spiking in Anne Arundel County, school leaders decided that classes will remain completely online for the entirety of the fall semester. Anne Arundel County Public Schools announced the decision with a Monday afternoon press release.

Superintendent George Arlotto will review his virtual learning plan with the Board of Education at public meeting on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Arlotto said he made the decision after many discussions with Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, who will be present at the meeting. Kalyanaraman will also brief the county on rising coronavirus numbers at an emergency town hall with County Executive Steuart Pittman on Monday at 5:30 p.m.

AACPS will stream the meeting on its TV station, which is on channel 96 on Comcast and Broadstripe and channel 36 on Verizon. A high definition broadcast will be available on Channel 996 on Comcast, Channel 496 on Broadstripe and Channel 1961 on Verizon. The school system will also steam the meeting on its YouTube channel.

The board will accept public feedback on the plan through July 31. Anybody that wants to share their opinion can do so by emailing [email protected] or sending a letter to the school system’s office at 2644 Riva Road, Annapolis, MD 21401.

With classes continuing digitally, technology becomes a top concern for the school system. Before classes begin, students and families will have a virtual orientation to teach them the ins and outs of distance learning.

The press release said all students will receive a small, minimalistic laptop, called a Chromebook, before the school year begins. Every teacher will get a full laptop, the release said.

The school system had about 45,000 Chromebooks in March, when most coronavirus shutdowns began. It has since ordered about 45,000 more. Anne Arundel County has about 85,000 public school students.

AACPS plans to continue expanding its stockpile of Chromebooks to keep in schools when they reopen. The release said board will have to find more money before it can tackle this project, however.

“We all want students to be back in our buildings, but there are very real concerns about returning to those settings in September for us and for a significant portion of our families and our employees,” Arlotto said in the press release. “What carries the most weight for me, however, is the data and the science. I have been communicating with Dr. Kalyanaraman regularly and his advice to me is that, given the current state of the pandemic and the fact that Maryland remains in Stage 2 of its Road to Recovery, the best course of action is to begin the year virtually.”

The school system recently conducted a survey to gauge families’ preferences on how to handle fall classes. More than 45,000 families responded. The sample represents nearly 80,000, or 94 percent, of the county’s students.

Of those surveyed, 49 percent said that they would want to return to in-person classes in the fall. The hybrid model was the second most popular choice, registering 32 percent of the vote. The final 20 percent of families said they would prefer to continue classes online.

Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Howard County and Baltimore City have already committed to starting the school year online. Prince George’s County said it would remain online until at least Jan. 29. The county will not return to completely in-person instruction until the 2021-2022 school year at the earliest.

The move online comes three days after the Anne Arundel County teachers union said it wants to start the school year virtually. The announcement from the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County says educators are worried that returning to school too soon will only worsen the local coronavirus situation.

“We know there is no better alternative to learning having teachers, school administrative and support personnel in front of students,” the statement said. “But it must not come at the expense of our children’s and staff’s health.”

The teachers union said it was concerned about the logistics of busing and personal protective equipment. Starting the classes online would give the board of education more time to figure out a strong safety plan, the union says.

School funding is another concern for the union. Teachers question whether they can operate safely with their allotted budget.

“In a time when the school system budget has been reduced from what was originally requested before the pandemic, we have reservations that the limited current resources are sufficient to keep our students, teachers, administrators and other school-based employees safe and successful,” said the statement, which the Secretaries and Assistants Association of Anne Arundel County and the Association of Educational Leaders also signed.

The school system’s budget is $1.31 billon for the 2021 fiscal year, which started on July 1. The approved budget is about $52 million less than what the board originally requested from the county council. The requested budget is frequently less than what’s approved.

This year’s school budget is $44 million larger than last year’s. Budget cuts have been commonplace however, as coronavirus ate about $1 billion out of the state’s funding. Gov. Larry Hogan requested $1.45 billion in cuts from the state’s budget to off set these losses.

The teachers’ call for online classes aligns with the digital learning push from the state teachers union. On Tuesday, the Maryland State Education Association hosted a virtual meeting with the state PTA and the Baltimore Teachers Union to reveal their preference for starting the school year online.

More than 80 percent of MSEA members are concerned about the student motivation, participation, internet access and mental health implications of online classes, according to two association-sponsored polls. The same polls reported that the majority of its members “strongly support reduced class sizes, [personal protective equipment] for educators and students, and additional mental health staff as pre-requisites to reopening schools.”

“The pandemic has exacerbated inequity and trauma that existed widely before the pandemic shuttered schools,” Cheryl Bost, the association’s president, said in an online statement. “These polls clearly show that educators and the public know that we need to protect school funding and the health of our educators and students. Our kids have waited too long for equity in education, and now more than ever we must act to give all of our students the opportunities and support that they deserve.”

Maryland schools have been closed since the state superintendent, Karen Salmon, shut them down in March. The school system will remain closed until Salmon and Hogan indicate otherwise.

Hogan has asked each county’s school board to submit a plan for fall classes by Aug. 14. After reviewing the public feedback given by July 31, AACPS will send in its plan. State officials will review those proposals and then issue a definitive ruling on whether public schools are allowed to reopen.

Anne Arundel County counted 78 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, data show. That was the most since June 15 when the county tallied a record-high 128 new cases. The county reported 48 additional cases of coronavirus on Sunday.

New cases bottomed out at 10 on June 23. The county has confirmed 6,003 coronavirus cases and 205 related deaths.

Hospitalizations remain relatively low, however. As of Monday, coronavirus had 46 Anne Arundel County residents in the hospital.

That’s down from the April 21 peak of 172 hospitalizations. Fewer than 50 people have been hospitalized at a time since June 14. Monday’s 46 hospitalizations are still the most the county has had since June 17.

Anne Arundel County has the fifth most confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, according to the latest data from the Maryland Department of Health.

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This article originally appeared on the Anne Arundel Patch

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