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Students at Perryville Middle School sat spaced six feet apart in the cafeteria, the only time during the day when they could remove their masks during the district’s hybrid reopening last fall.

ELKTON — Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) announced Monday that five percent of students will be able to return for four days a week of in-person instruction beginning Monday, Jan. 11. The district will look to expand face-to-face learning to more students, but the timeline of that expansion remains uncertain.

According to CCPS Superintendent Jeff Lawson, the administration of COVID-19 vaccines to district staff will be a key factor in determining when schools can reopen more broadly.

“As the vaccines come out, and we start to bring back all of our employees, then you’re going to see more and more students come back,” he said. “A lot of what we want to do is predicated upon an effective rollout of the vaccine.”

Educators are included in the second tier of the first priority group, meaning they are largely next in line for vaccines after the county administers its first doses to healthcare workers and first responders. Lawson said that the district has worked in close collaboration with the county health department to ensure staff have access to vaccines as they become available.

The district is hoping to bring back its full staff on Jan. 25, but did not confirm whether more students will be welcomed back on that date.

Lawson said that many of the students in the first five percent to return have dedicated staff, including paraprofessionals and other educators who have indicated that they are comfortable returning in-person.

“With the five percent being in the buildings, you’re talking about maybe, with staff and students combined, a total of, in an elementary school, maybe thirty people,” he said. “That’s certainly a small enough group that we can control any potential spread.”

Cecil County was ahead of the curve last semester, bringing back the same core five percent of students with the highest need in the early weeks of September while schools across the state were still largely hesitant to reopen.

School buildings are a controlled environment, though, and the district layered on mitigation strategies to prevent viral spread among students and staff.

Six feet of social distancing, rigorous hand washing and sanitizing and wearing face masks — these were some safety measures enforced in schools across the district. CCPS also purchased 8,000 clear plastic sneeze guards for classrooms, cafeterias and other uses, regulated the flow of students in hallways and capped bathroom occupancy to one at a time.

For a while, it seemed to be working — there was no evidence of the virus spreading in school, and students and teachers were largely excited to be back.

The district expanded beyond the initial five percent to welcome students back at 25 percent capacity, offering one day of face-to-face instruction per week to all those students who had not indicated a preference to remain fully virtual. After the 25 percent reopening proceeded smoothly, they merged the four daily cohorts into two groups, bringing those students back for two in-person days a week.

But in mid-November, the rollout of the hybrid reopening hit a snag — local health metrics worsened, putting the county well over the positivity rate of five percent and new daily case rate of 15 per 100,000, numbers set by the Center for Disease Control as thresholds for safe reopening.

Schools were challenged not by rampant viral spread, but by staff quarantining — hundreds of CCPS staff were forced into ten day quarantines after potential exposure, leaving fewer and fewer teachers and support staff to run the schools.

Lawson indicated that this was the core reason the district had to return to fully remote learning in mid-November — the number of students back required the full muscle of the district staff, but with many staff in quarantine, it became unsustainable.

“When we broke camp, so to speak, back in the second week of November, some of our schools had hundreds of students,” he said. “So that was a little bit more of a precarious situation, especially with the way the numbers have spiked in these last few weeks.”

He said that they received the blessing of Health Department Director Lauren Levy to proceed with reopening for a small group of students. Those students who will be brought back as part of the five percent are identified by their schools, and typically face learning challenges such as living with a disability or being unable to reliably log in for online instruction.

“We felt like that was a way we could do things successfully,” he said. “And knock on wood, so far so good.”

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