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For one Maryland school district, it was back to school with a mask mandate. But not for long.

Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson, right, chats with parents and students on the first day of school at the new Cherokee Lane Elementary in Adelphi. Photo by William J. Ford.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated after Prince George’s County Public Schools updated its masking policy Monday evening. 

Parents, their children, teachers and other school staff beamed with excitement Monday as the first day of school began for 13 school systems in the state of Maryland.

In Prince George’s County, the enthusiasm shined even more for several hundred students and parents because they entered a new Cherokee Lane Elementary in Adelphi. However, you could only see the sparkle in their eyes because masks covered everyone’s smiling faces.

Prince George’s, the state’s second-largest school system with about 131,000 students, was the only one of the 16 systems which have opened that requires everyone to wear a mask when inside school buildings and on school buses.

But because recent COVID-19 transmission rates are currently low at nine people per 100,000 population, public schools CEO Monica Goldson announced Monday evening that the school system would return to a “mask-optional” policy after Labor Day.

As of Thursday, Prince George’s and 10 other Maryland counties were ranked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having “low” community transmission levels of COVID-19. About two weeks ago, the transmission rate in Prince George’s County was “high.” In times of high transmission, the CDC recommends wearing masks indoors in public and on public transportation.

“PGCPS will continue to make health and safety decisions in consultation with health experts,” school officials said in a Monday evening update to parents.

The school system and state health officials have encouraged schools to support personal decisions on mask-wearing when mandates aren’t in place.

“Schools and child care programs should be aware that at all COVID-19 community levels, people can choose to wear a mask based on personal preference or informed personal level of risk to themselves or their household or social contacts,” according to a July 22 guidance letter from the state Health Department. “Schools and child care programs should have policies in place to support voluntary masking for any reason and to deter bullying.”

Seven counties and Baltimore City are currently ranked “yellow” by the CDC, meaning COVID transmission rates have a medium impact to the community and health care system. Five counties had “high” transmission levels: Allegany, Garrett, Kent, Somerset and Wicomico.

Back in Adelphi, Norma Davis’s four grandchildren made history as the first four students to enter Cherokee Lane Elementary on the first day of classes.

More importantly for Davis, they all wore masks. One of her grandchildren had to be sent home last school year because of COVID cases in their school.

“I am in support of the mask mandate because COVID is out there,” she said. “The children should wear the masks at least another half-year until the numbers get even lower. I don’t want [my grandchildren] to be sent home. They need to be in school.”

Teacher shortages

Meanwhile, school systems statewide are struggling with teacher shortages — an issue that predated the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a July 26 report from the state Department of Education, there were nearly 2,000 teacher vacancies in September 2021.

One month later, the state notes voluntarily resignation stood as the main reason for the vacancies.

Prince George’s recorded the highest number of vacancies in the 2021-22 school year with 422 at the beginning of the year to 712 when it ended in June.

In a letter to the school community last week, Goldson wrote the school system has up to 900 vacancies now, which sat as the highest number in the state.

On Monday, she said about half of those positions are filled by 150 central office staff, retired educators and long-term substitute teachers.

“Are we at 100%? No. That is where I would ideally be, but I’m extremely grateful that even going into last week we have filled 92% of our positions,” she said. “We’re slowly dwindling down. We’ll continue to keep hiring throughout the school year. There are some students who are in college now who will be graduating in December. We’ve already made contact with many of those candidates [to] bring them on as well.”

Most educator vacancies, according to state data, are in special education, elementary schools, school counselors and math and English teachers in the middle and high schools.

Additional money is scheduled to flow to schools this year from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the multi-billion comprehensive education reform plan the legislature approved last year.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said “the underlying crisis” in teacher shortages includes increased workloads, lack of pay and lack of respect.

“We still have way more work,” she said. “We have a hard time recruiting in the education profession, but at the same time we’re not doing a very good job across the state at retaining educators.”

Early dismissal

For some students in Baltimore, their first day of school was cut short.

With temperatures expected to reach 93 degrees Monday and Tuesday, Baltimore City Public Schools announced that students in 20 schools would be dismissed early.

According to a news release, 11 schools that started between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. left around 11:30 a.m. Another six schools that began school at least 30 minutes earlier were dismissed at 12:30 p.m. and the other three schools with start times between 9 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. left at 12:45 p.m.

The school system, which is home to some of the oldest school buildings in the state, has faced routine closures because of heating or cooling issues for several years.

Since 2017, the school system has worked toward a plan to improve heating and cooling at buildings without proper temperature regulation. As of earlier this month, the number of schools without air conditioning was 14 — down from 75 previously.

Baltimore City Public Schools has identified funding for the 14 remaining school upgrades, and six projects will begin construction next summer.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.