A student is welcomed back to James Hubert Blake High School for the first day of in-person classes in nearly a year on Monday. Credit: via Donna Redmond Jones

After more than 350 days taking classes remotely, the first group of Montgomery County Public Schools students returned to buildings for face-to-face classes on Monday.

Some students in special education and career and technical education programs are included in the first phase that started in-person classes. The rest of the approximately 60,000 students who chose to take in-person classes will return to buildings in several phases over the next two months.

Students were last in buildings for in-person classes on March 13, 2020. State officials ordered schools across the state to close for two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19, but many, including in Montgomery County, stayed closed through the fall and into the spring.

The extended closure has sparked frustration among community members who say their children have struggled with virtual classes for nearly a year.

Still, many families and teachers are concerned about returning to buildings because they are anxious about the virus spreading.

The county’s teachers union, which represents about 14,000 educators, recently took a vote of “no confidence” in the district’s reopening plan. The union vote was passed by about 96% of the membership, challenging why teachers were being asked to return when most have not been vaccinated.

The union is also concerned that asking teachers to conduct both in-person and virtual classes at the same time will mean students in the virtual format do not get as much attention.

But on Monday, some teachers and principals returning to schools said it felt like the “first day of school again,” complete with nervous excitement and anticipation.

About 730 students returned to schools on Monday, spread among 68 schools throughout the county. School buses were out, picking up and dropping off students, sometimes arriving at school with just one or two students aboard.

The district’s larger-scale reopening plan, scheduled to begin March 15, will be rolled out in four phases.

The phases and the deadlines for them to start:

• March 15: Career and special education programs not included in the March 1 reopening, alternative programs and kindergarten through third grade

• April 6: The remaining career programs, pre-kindergarten, fourth through sixth grade, and high school seniors

• April 19: Eighth grade, high school freshmen and high school juniors

• April 26: Seventh grade and high school sophomores.

The Montgomery County school board plans to discuss at a meeting in late March whether the phases can be accelerated to get more students back into schools more quickly.

Once they return to schools, middle and high school students will take classes in person for one week, then virtually for one week in an alternating schedule, which will vary school by school. Wednesdays will be virtual classes for all students every week.

Elementary schedules will vary by school and grade, but some will have face-to-face classes four days per week. Others will use an alternating weekly schedule like the middle and high schools have.

Along with the return to in-person classes, student-athletes began their fall sports season on Saturday.

Fall sports include bocce, cheerleading, cross- country, field hockey, football, golf, pompons, soccer and girls’ volleyball.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com