The Baltimore City school system has proposed relaxing social distancing to as little as 4 feet and requiring face masks for all staff and students when buildings reopen, according to a presentation to staff this week.
Schools would open with a combination of online and in-person classes on an alternating schedule, with a goal to transition the district’s youngest students entirely to in-person classes. Families would have the option to take all classes online.
The online presentation by schools CEO Sonja Santelises to employees came ahead of a virtual town hall scheduled for Thursday for families to receive reopening updates and ask questions. Details of school administrators’ proposals were included in presentation slides obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
City schools have been working to develop a reopening plan by the end of July after school buildings closed in March for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus.
District officials said Wednesday the proposals are not final and they are soliciting feedback from staff and families.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for schools to maintain 6 feet of distance between desks or chairs when feasible. In presentation materials given to Baltimore City schools staff, district leaders said they were proposing “relaxing physical distancing to 4-6 feet to accommodate a greater number of students in-person in school buildings.”
Masks would be required. Desk shields and dividers would be used for students “who may have more difficulty wearing or keeping a mask on during the school day,” such as younger children and those in special education.
The presentation cited statements by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently issued guidance saying there is evidence to suggest “that spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic.” The AAP has been encouraging schools to reopen.
The presentation also stated that students would be kept in smaller groups or cohorts, remaining in a classroom, while teachers would move around as needed.
The proposals have raised concerns among school employees.
“The proposals should be way more heavily focused on protecting human life, not figuring out how we can get students in school buildings with relaxed social distancing,” Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonté Brown said.
Brown said in an interview that “what the district discusses doesn’t mean that the union agrees to it.” She emphasized that city students and educators were already facing “underfunded, under-resourced” schools before the pandemic.
School officials said they are soliciting input about reopening in a variety of ways. These include surveys for families, students and staff, as well as work groups and family listening tours, said schools spokeswoman Tabitha Lee.
In a presentation slide titled “Proposed Fall Reopening,” officials said they want to pursue a “two-pronged instructional approach with virtual and hybrid learning occurring in parallel.” This would include an “all virtual academy” for families who do not feel comfortable sending students back to in-person classes.
For other students, the proposal is to start the year on a schedule in which one group is in the classroom on certain days while the other participates in distance learning. Eventually, younger students would attend school in person every day while those in grades 7 through 12 would continue with a mix of on-site and distance learning.
Joe Kane, treasurer of Baltimore’s Parents and Community Advisory Board, said he hadn’t yet heard details of the reopening proposals, but understands the district is “in a tight spot.”
“Parents in general understand this is a crisis and this is not normal,” he said.
He added that there needs to be clear, ongoing communication between school leaders and families about the reopening plans.
“That engagement has to happen in real time,” Kane said.
A town hall meeting on reopening is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday on the city schools’ YouTube channel and Facebook page. Links to surveys and more information can be found on the system’s reopening page at www.baltimorecityschools.org/reopening.