2021 | Schools

UPDATED: With hugs and masks, MCPS begins 2021-22 school year 

160,000 students returned to schools Monday

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A band and cheerleaders welcome students to the first day of school at Richard Montgomery High School.

Photo by Caitlynn Peetz

Montgomery County’s 160,000 public school students returned to schools on Monday, most for the first time in more than a year. 

Donning masks, as required, students high-fived and hugged as they arrived at their schools, rejoicing in as close to a “return to normal” as possible in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Monday marked the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year for MCPS, Maryland’s largest school district. It was the first time nearly all of its students were in schools since March 2020, when the pandemic closed buildings in an effort to limit congregating and the virus’ spread.

In March 2021, more than a year after schools closed, MCPS began a phased return to buildings for about 60,000 students who opted to take classes in-person to finish the year. The rest of the district’s students remained in the fully virtual format. 

Students on their way to Gaithersburg Elementary School. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

In the spring, MCPS pledged to make in-person classes the “default” option for its students and to reopen buildings at their normal capacities. 

About 3,000 students are enrolled in an all-virtual school option, which also began on Monday. The virtual academy was open to all students — particularly those with health problems and high school students with additional responsibilities outside of school — but MCPS officials emphasized in-person learning as better for most.  

The school year will end June 15.

The 2021-22 academic calendar includes 182 instructional days. The state requires at least 180.

Students who filtered into Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring on Monday wore masks of various patterns and colors.

Colleen and Gerry Sinzdak were in one of the first waves of families to arrive. They have a first-grader, Cole, and a kindergartener, Rory, attending the school this year.

Luwam Zebruk and her son, Nathan, a first-grader at Rosemary Hills Elementary School, stop for a photo before other parents, students and school buses arrive. (Photo by Steve Bohnel)

As a former teacher, Colleen said she appreciates the effort that teachers and staff members put into preparing for the school year. She’s also grateful that Montgomery County residents have gotten vaccinated and taken precautions due to the coronavirus, as the Delta variant spreads more rapidly in other states.

Both Cole and Rory spent much of the last year or so in day care, so they are used to wearing masks, Colleen said. Parents have to balance not only student safety, but also scheduling and other logistics if schools have to shut down due to the spread of the coronavirus, Colleen said.

Ultimately, she’s happy with the job the district has done.

“I guess if anything … the messaging has been a little more complicated than I think it needed to be, or, like, the emails [are] a little too long,” she said. “But I never doubted that Montgomery County would do the right thing, considering where we live.”

Marijke McConkie, whose son Redd is in kindergarten, was a little more concerned Monday. Although the staff and administrators have a lot to deal with, she said, she wished there had been more communication sooner about mitigation, including how outdoor lunches would work.

Marijke, left, and Richard McConkie help their son Redd put on his mask before school begins. (Photo by Steve Bohnel)

McConkie said she got the school’s lunch plan on Saturday. Since the school is only doing outdoor lunch one or two times a week, she said she is taking Redd out of school during that time every day.

It’s not just the spread of the Delta variant and safety that concerns McConkie. It’s also the fact she and her husband, Richard, haven’t been able to see Redd’s classroom, or meet his teacher.

“There’s just new parents back to school anxiety in general, and with this being a new experience, and a new teacher, [and] wanting to ensure your child has a positive association with public education, and set themselves up for the next 12-plus years of school,” McConkie said. 

This story will be updated.