The parents of nearly 3,500 Baltimore County students are choosing to opt out of the daily in-person education the school system will offer this fall and let their children learn at home.
The county has joined the state’s school systems in making plans to allow some students to learn online this school year.
Emily Mullinix has enrolled her two children in the Baltimore County Virtual Learning Program. She keeps her 7th grader at home because online learning works better for her. She struggles to speak, so she was successful with the chat feature in Google Meets. And she wants to stay home.
Mullinix’s sixth-grade student is a harder call, however, as he wants to go back to school.
âAll of his friends are going in person,â Mullinix said.
So she can change her mind and let him go to school, but she’s nervous about it.
“I am worried because it is not yet old enough to be vaccinated and there are these variants going around,” she said.
County director of studies Mary Boswell-McComas said she expects the number of students enrolled in virtual learning to decline. She said some parents who initially enrolled their children for it were changing their minds.
âWe noticed the biggest drop in college enrollment and I think that’s exactly because the vaccine is now available for children up to age 12,â McComas said.
About 3% of Baltimore County’s 111,000 students are enrolled in the online option, including about 1,000 middle school students and nearly 1,200 high school students. Boswell-McComas said the largest enrollment – 1,270 students – is at the elementary level.
“I think this number strikes me as very representative of the fact that there is no vaccine available at the basic level yet.”
This could change during the school year. Pfizer is pulling this fall to get emergency clearance for a COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.
Other state school systems are also developing virtual plans. For example, the City of Baltimore and the County of Frederick are planning virtual learning for Kindergarten to Grade 12. Howard County limits it to 6e grade and younger. Carroll County canceled its e-learning program because too few students registered.
In Baltimore County, teachers are hired specifically for online education. Unlike the previous school year, teachers will not have students simultaneously at home and in the classroom.
Cindy Sexton, president of TABCO, the Baltimore County Teachers Association, said she expects the county to have enough teachers to staff the virtual program.
âSo the teachers who have really excelled in this area and had a way to reach their students and make their students excel are excited about this opportunity,â Sexton said.
Virtual learning is a general education program. Not all courses will be offered online. In Baltimore County, this includes classes specifically for special education students. They usually need more intensive face-to-face services, according to Kathrine Pierandozzi, executive director of special education for county schools.
âThey wouldn’t make any progress with this virtual learning program that BCPS is offering,â she said.
Pierandozzi said some special education students who need fewer services could learn virtually this fall. She said this has to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Leslie Margolis, lawyer in charge of Disability Rights Maryland, said the parent of a special education student must determine whether the child can successfully attend a virtual school.
âKnowing that the virtual school may not be able to provide all of the services their child would receive in person,â said Margolis.
She said she was not sure the school system has given any thought to what it should offer students with disabilities who may not be able to return to class.
Baltimore County’s virtual learning program is not forever.
The director of studies, Boswell-McComas, said it will end after the next school year. She sees it as a final one-year emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic.