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With pandemic restrictions lifted, Baltimore schools have a chance to regain a little lost time this summer

David Wise works with Zachary Fiorenza, left, and Raul Saldana-Hernandez, right, at Holabird Academy's summer school math class in this 2019 file photo. Baltimore City schools are planning a limited number of in-person summer classes after a surprise announcement by state officials lifting restrictions.
David Wise works with Zachary Fiorenza, left, and Raul Saldana-Hernandez, right, at Holabird Academy's summer school math class in this 2019 file photo. Baltimore City schools are planning a limited number of in-person summer classes after a surprise announcement by state officials lifting restrictions. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

After planning for a summer of virtual learning, an unexpected announcement from the state has allowed school systems to bring some students back into their classrooms this summer, unlocking a door to the first in-person instruction since mid-March.

Baltimore City is the first school system in the region to announce it will sort through all of the complex questions of how to hold real school again during a pandemic so a tiny number of students can return beginning in July.

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Officials will have to decide how students will walk through the halls, who will clean the doorknobs, desks and bathrooms, and how much teachers should try to accomplish.

Since the state announced June 10 that it would allow school systems to hold in-person summer school classes, only the city school system has committed to bringing students into classrooms.

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Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel county officials said they are considering in-person classes but have made no decisions yet. Carroll County officials may offer some summer school in August. The Harford County system said it has an announcement coming soon.

The state’s announcement, made after most school officials had just completed plans for virtual summer schools, allows schools to have 15 people — including students and staff ― in a classroom with social distancing rules in place. The state also is allowing non-public special education schools to resume classes.

Baltimore Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said that while the city will offer in-person summer school for a small number of students, it will still offer on-line summer programs for everyone else, as previously planned.

“We originally had told our families that our summer programs would be virtual, based on what we knew at the time. We still have a large number of our families that were planning for that. We are going to continue that,” Santelises said.

But she said the most recent guidance now allows the system to bring back those who are most at risk for falling behind.

Students who don’t have laptops or internet access, as well as students who just stopped appearing for virtual classes will be given high priority in deciding who is asked to come to summer school, Santelises said.

The school system also is looking at bringing back some of its youngest learners, such as the kindergartners who may have had difficulty learning to read outside a normal classroom environment. Officials hope to be opening schools to some special education students, as well.

None of the plans has been formalized, and school officials said teachers will not be required to teach in-person classes. The teaching staff will be recruited among those who feel comfortable.

John Davis, chief of schools, said he believes fewer than 10 schools will start classes in early to mid-July with a limited number of students. Because the system has no experience holding classes during a pandemic, he said administrators are trying it on a small scale to make sure they can get all the appropriate safety precautions in place.

The administration is not forcing any school principal to offer classes, but instead is asking for volunteers.

Each classroom will have eight to 10 students, he said, and each school likely will have only one class per grade. Classes will probably focus on literacy with maybe a little math and outdoor fun thrown.

“We are not going to open up a full school,” Davis said. “There is not a scripted playbook on it. We are figuring it out. We are going to work with our principals and our teachers who want to do it.”

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Whether students will learn enough in a short summer school program to make progress in closing their learning gap is unclear. Many educators across the state, including Santelises, believe the learning time lost during the pandemic will echo for years, and that schools can’t simply begin a new school year without rethinking what is taught.

“We are not going to open up a full school. There is not a scripted playbook on it. We are figuring it out. We are going to work with our principals and our teachers who want to do it.”


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Jonathan Plucker, a Johns Hopkins University professor and an educational psychologist, isn’t optimistic that students will get caught up. Gaps between the highest and lowest achievers can be up to eight grade levels in one classroom, according to an analysis of test scores by Plucker and other researchers. Reducing those gaps in one summer school session isn’t likely to happen.

“I think we have to be realistic about how much it is going to help,” he said.

Many families have been touched by the virus, he said, and some have had family members die. In addition, some students have had more stress in their lives since staying home.

It may be helpful, he said, for schools to address trauma that could get in the way of learning and “maybe making sure that the kids don’t fall farther behind.”

Many educators are approaching a return to classrooms with a good deal of skepticism about whether it is safe. Chad Kramer, principal of Patterson Park Public Charter School, said his school will stay virtual this summer. He’s worried the pandemic is more serious in the neighborhoods around Patterson than has been reported. The area has high numbers of undocumented families who he said are less likely to be counted if they are sick.

“I don’t think we have an accurate count here ... The fact is that there are a lot of people who are undercounted,” he said.

Evidence from France, Germany and Denmark suggests that opening schools does not rapidly increase the spread of the virus, said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Schools in those countries have been fully reopened.

“You are not seeing a resurgence of the virus,” he said.

That should leave health officials feeling more confident that schools can reopen in the fall in some form, he said. That doesn’t mean that parents will feel secure, however. Bailey noted that in Britain, so few parents sent their children back to school the country has closed schools again.

“It is parent trust — how can you can get parents to send their children to summer school? Second is, how you are making sure you are keeping the physical distance between kids?” he said.

Teachers will have to change the basic way they teach, Bailey said. Before the coronavirus, teachers encouraged small groups to gather in the classroom for a lesson or to do a project together. But that structure is in direct tension with advice to stay six feet apart.

Whatever summer school looks like in city classrooms, the experiences will give its teachers, principals and administrators information on how to open school in the fall — a small dry run for more significant return currently planned for August.

Lifting the restrictions to allow 15 people in a classroom appears to be sending a signal to school leaders that if there isn’t a resurgence of the virus, they should expect to be allowed to have a return to regular classes in the fall.

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City schools will still be preparing for several scenarios for an August reopening, including the option of distance learning. But Santelises said that given the pace at which the state is reopening, schools may not need to plan for as many scenarios for next year.

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