Baltimore City Public Schools’ plan to allow thousands more elementary and high school students to attend in-person classes beginning next month raised deep concerns from both parents and teachers who question whether schools can be safe places to learn as the pandemic rages.
The plan calls for kindergarten through second grade students to return to traditional public school in the city starting Feb. 15. They would be followed March 1 by third through fifth graders, as well as ninth and 12th graders. Nontraditional schools, including charters, can chose whether to open.
Corey Gaber, a vice president on the Baltimore Teachers Union executive committee, said the decision to expand in-person learning when coronavirus case rates exceed recommendations “is premature and irresponsible and would endanger lives unnecessarily.”
Ryan Kaiser, the district’s teacher of the year in 2015, said the plan feels “a little reckless.”
“We are on cusp of having vaccinations for teachers. I think a large portion of the teachers would be willing to go back if they are vaccinated with the second shot and have immunity,” said the middle school teacher at Mt. Royal Elementary/Middle School.
Middle schools are not going back immediately.
Parents with students in grades returning will have the option of sending their children back to school or contining to have them learn at home online. Teachers will be asked to return based on the number of parents who decide to return.
While some parents want their children to return because they feel they are falling behind, said Joe Kane, chair of the Parent Community Advisory Committee, many others have a lot of questions they want answered first. He called the lack of specificity and details given to parents as the plan was announced problematic.
“We have seen the data around the number of students who are failing classes so we know” that some students need support, he said, referring to school data that reveal as many as two-thirds of students in some grades had failed at least one course this year. But he cautioned that he believes “to jump back in to having school for everyone is not the ideal approach.”
Gigi Gronvall, the parent of two city school students, and a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said schools likely could reopen safely but only with a multilayered plan that would include masking, social distancing, air filtering and testing everyone regularly for COVID-19.
She also would like to see teachers and staff prioritized for getting vaccines.
“There are so many variables that there is not going to be just one thing,” Gronvall said. “You can’t totally rely on masks or testing. There has to be a whole strategy.”
School officials say they will go beyond the safety measures called for by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When a student or school staff member has symptoms of COVID-19, they can be tested immediately at school and a University of Maryland Medical System mobile van will come to pick up the test and give prompt results.
Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she is working on plans to provide regular testing for staff and students — even those who don’t show symptoms — but it is not yet in place.
About 2,000 of the district’s 85,000 students are now taking classes in-person at 27 schools, even as the state’s health metrics would call for schools to be closed. While most other Central Maryland school districts have remained closed since March, Santelises has decided to open. Carroll County also opened recently.
“I know people are scared ... That is why I built up the trajectory of success before we made the announcement,” Santelises said at a news conference Thursday at the school system’s North Avenue headquarters.
She said she feels compelled to do as much as she can to return students because data shows such a large percentage of students had failing grades in the first quarter. In addition, she said some students have told her they need to learn inside a school.
“These children are why I do the work, and I believe that families in Baltimore City deserve an option. For families who want a choice, they deserve a safe choice,” she said. “That is what this is about.”
Santelises estimates about one-quarter of students will return to classes.
In the schools that have been open since August, there have been no cases of transmission of the virus among students and staff, Santelises said, and only one case of virus transmission has occurred among those working at the meal distribution sites.
Some teachers expressed outrage at the return plans on social media.
Amir Ali, an elementary school teacher, said she does not believe schools should reopen until vaccines are widely available to adults. Even if teachers and school staff were vaccinated, she said, children could spread the virus in school and take it home to a parent or grandparent.
Ali believes many families will send their children back because they are desperate, but she doesn’t believe the district should give them the option if it isn’t safe.
Teachers who have existing health conditions do not have to return to teaching in-person, Santelises said, and principals will work to ensure they remain teaching online. If a teacher without a health condition does not want to return, Santelises said, they can take an unpaid leave of absence.
Santelises has said all schools will have improved air filtration systems or air purifiers in each classroom.
Gronvall said conditions are far from perfect to reopen schools with COVID-19 cases surging and record hospitalizations. Ideally, she said, community spread of the coronavirus would be minimal.
A CDC report released Wednesday found coronavirus cases in children of all ages have increased since the summer, with those younger than age 10 still representing the smallest proportion of infections. The report found schools could reopen safely with strict mitigation measures and controlling spread in the community.
Baltimore Sun staff writer Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.