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Baltimore City Council members ask schools chief to reconsider reopening plan

Three Baltimore City Council members are asking the school system to push back a planned mid-February opening of school buildings for kindergarten through second graders, despite efforts to speed vaccinations for teachers and school staff.

Councilmen Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey and Kristerfer Burnett, all Democrats, have joined with union leaders who say it is too early to open schools, citing the levels of COVID-19 in the community. The Baltimore City Council members are pressing schools chief Sonja Santelises to wait until after returning teachers have been fully vaccinated.

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Cohen, Dorsey and Burnett said in a statement that city schools need a more detailed plan before students can return safely including guidance for cleaning and a roadmap to accommodate simultaneous virtual and in-person learning.

The stress of learning online has been “profound” for city students, said Cohen, noting the city’s “gaping” digital divide. But sending teachers back to the classroom unvaccinated could be dangerous, Cohen said. Vaccinating them could take time. Teachers can’t be prioritized over the elderly or health professionals, he said.

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“I don’t know that one is more important than another,” Cohen said.

Santelises said she has no plans to scale back or delay the reopening plan, but she will make adjustments if health metrics change or she foresees the need. The city’s testing positivity rate is trending down and Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday that restaurants could resume limited indoor and outdoor dining Friday.

Santelises laid out a plan last week to continue a slow roll out of more in-person classes for families that decide they want their children in school. She will open all schools for kindergarten through second graders on Feb. 15 and then expand the option to third through fifth graders, ninth graders and seniors on March 1.

The next month allows teachers to return to their schools, survey their classrooms, and ask for changes if they do not have what they need in place, Santelises said.

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Most school systems in the state remain closed, according to Maryland State Department of Education data. Santelises said she is persevering for those families in the city that have said their children need to get back to school.

While some Black families have been reluctant to send their children back because of historical skepticism that medical professionals will keep their children safe, Santelises said she also believes those families should be allowed to make their own decisions. She expects between 20% and 25% of students will return.

“With all due respect,” she said, “I am concerned about Black and brown families throughout the city having a choice.”

Baltimore Teachers Union leaders say they are planning protests and other actions in the coming days to get the attention of city leaders and have asked Scott to support a delay, an action he has not taken.

“It defies all logic and sanity. They are forcing us in before we get vaccinated,” said high school teacher Joel Pally.

He doesn’t believe most teachers will receive the recommended two shots of the vaccine before they are required to return to buildings.

Educators “see it as a life and death issue for themselves and their students and families,” Pally said. “We have to do everything in our power to fight for safe schools. We are planning actions. We expect members in the streets daily protesting.”

While some factions within the union have called for taking a strike vote, union leaders say they are not endorsing that action, which would be illegal under Maryland law and against their contract. In addition, the union would risk decertification, said Corey Gaber, a vice president of the executive board of the union. Some other protests, like a sick out, also could be interpreted as a strike, he said.

Teachers are demanding that all school-based staff be fully vaccinated, the ventilation systems be revamped, and that only teachers who volunteer return to the classrooms, union leaders said. Teachers also have concerns about the logistics of teaching some students online and others in-person.

The school system is working to find a way to provide routine testing at schools, as well as more vaccinations for educators. Currently, teachers can be vaccinated through the city health department or through Johns Hopkins Hospital, which has reserved 500 shots a week for teachers and school staff.

Santelises said more than 3,000 air purifiers arrived in the city Wednesday and will be deployed to classrooms in buildings where the ventilation systems cannot be upgraded. She also has pledged to have testing at schools for anyone who shows symptoms, small classes and enough protective gear.

The school system has been making adjustments when spread of the virus has changed, including going to all online learning the week after Thanksgiving.

“We have been adjusting,” she said, adding that she wasn’t going to make changes under pressure from politicians who have written a letter “when I have the best medical professionals in the country advising me.”

The council members said they want coronavirus positivity rates below 5% for a week before schools reopen. Baltimore’s positivity rate was 5.65% Tuesday, according to state data.

”We fully support and appreciate the urgency to bring our children back to school,” the councilmen said in their statement. “However according to public health officials the next few months may bring a surge of transmission caused by the new strain of COVID-19. We must do everything in our power to keep our communities safe.”

Scott has not joined the calls to postpone the return of students to the classroom but has instead been meeting with several city hospitals in hopes of making more vaccines available, his office said in a statement.

“The Mayor is committed to ensuring essential frontline workers have what they need to do their jobs safely as we continue to navigate this unprecedented pandemic, and is simultaneously focused on ensuring every student can access the education they deserve,” said his spokeswoman Stefanie Mavronis.

Teachers are eligible to be vaccinated during Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan, which is now open. But that group also includes adults at least 75 years old, the homeless, people who live in group homes and child care workers. Baltimore Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa says that group includes roughly 60,000 people in the city.

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