Public school leaders in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County announced plans Monday to delay the start of in-person teaching until later this fall, saying they were balancing health concerns during the pandemic with the need to get the most vulnerable students back to learning.
Baltimore Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the decision was made after consultation with families and staff. A majority of parents want a return to some type of in-person school, but Baltimore’s teacher union did not support a return.
“We were squarely focused on children,” Santelises said. “We tried very hard to not make it a political statement.”
Santelises is asking the city school board to delay the opening of the school year, pushing it back to Sept. 8, the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend, to allow staff additional time for training. If approved, the change would allow teaches and staff to return to work on August 26.
Anne Arundel’s plan, which must be approved by the school board, would require all students to learn online for the first semester.
“We all want students to be back in our buildings, but there are very real concerns about returning to those settings in September,” Superintendent George Arlotto said. “What carries the most weight for me, however, is the data and the science.”
The two district decisions leave Baltimore County and Carroll County as the only Baltimore-area jurisdictions that have yet to announce plans for reopening schools in the fall. School systems in Harford County and Howard County already announced plans to hold virtual instruction through at least the first semester of school. School systems must submit reopening plans to the Maryland State Department of Education by Aug. 14.
The Baltimore County school board has a closed door meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
Monday afternoon, the five unions representing employees in the Baltimore County schools said they do not want to return to school buildings until they feel it can be done safely.
“We are advocating for following the science and making decisions based on facts,” said Cindy Sexton, the president of the Baltimore County teachers union.
Santelises said the city schools district will provide an update on its plans for school no later than October 16. She added in an interview that she will be looking at putting a number of measures in place before October, including buying personal protective equipment, researching and updating the capacity for schools to adequately filter indoor air, as well as watching the spread of the virus in the community.
“In person learning opportunities are the goal,” Santelises said.
She acknowledged virtual learning this first semester will be hampered by a lack of internet and devices. She said the system has 35,000 devices on order and that despite the recent addition of 10,000 WiFi hotspots, some students will not have access.
“Broadband needs to be a utility and we need to go there now,” she said.
The teachers and administrators unions said they believe virtual learning this fall will be better than the options provided in the spring.
Last week, the Maryland State Education Association, the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland PTA issued a joint statement, calling for the fall semester to begin with virtual-only instruction.
“Any return must be guided by science and the expertise of educators,” Baltimore Teachers Union president Diamonté Brown said in a statement. “Any return to in-person learning also must have renewed commitments to funding and supports so schools are not just ready to open on a chosen date but are safe places to learn and work for the entire school year.”
Sexton said Baltimore County teachers want to see that schools are able to follow all the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance before officials consider opening schools.
Some public health experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, have called for the reopening of schools if safety guidelines can be followed and community spread is under control in the areas around schools.
Joseph Kane, father of four Baltimore City Public Schools students, said he agrees with the school system’s decision to begin the fall semester with virtual instruction. Kane prefers delaying in-person classes until the second semester and said switching to a hybrid in-person option later in the fall isn’t rooted in data, citing rising COVID-19 cases across the country and in Maryland.
Public health experts have warned of a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, which could become more troublesome because of the flu season.
“It’s as if they already have a plan in place, regardless of the data,” Kane said.