Baltimore City Public Schools announced Wednesday that it will begin welcoming back some students this fall, starting with those who are most at risk of falling behind academically.
The city will reopen 25 schools, adding to the 1,000 students who have returned to schools in centers that provide supervision and internet access for them to do their online classes.
“We are continuing in our path of increasing learning opportunities for our most at-need students,” said Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises.
While there has been an improvement in the quality of online learning for students since it began in March, she said, “what is also true is there are too large a number of young people for whom the virtual learning is just not working.”
The city’s plan will be implemented in the second quarter, which begins in November, and will include students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, special education and those experiencing homelessness. The district also will bring back students who are showing up less than 20% of the time for online lessons.
Other students the system expects to return include some sixth and ninth graders — students transitioning to new schools — as well as students in career technology studies, such as those seeking certification to be an auto technician or a nursing assistant.
While only about 15% of city schools will be opened in November, the plan makes the city one of the few school districts in the Baltimore region allowing more than a tiny fraction of students inside buildings. Anne Arundel and Carroll counties are bringing back elementary students beginning in October and November. Baltimore County will remain closed for all but a select group of its special education students.
The announcement was greeted with anger by the Baltimore Teachers Union, which has taken the position that it is unsafe to risk the health of staff and students while no vaccine exists, and is advocating for no return to schools until at least January.
“In its deflections and posturing, the board and the district have emphasized equity, choice and opportunity as the main reasons to reopen schools," the union said in a statement on Wednesday. "However ... putting the most marginalized students and their often inter-generational families at risk to contract a deadly virus isn’t equity.”
The union said the school system has failed to answer questions about safety protocols. The lack of internet connections and laptops is not a reason to allow some students back, the union said.
“Opening schools because our students don’t have technology or access to virtual learning isn’t expanding their opportunities, rather, it’s putting them in harm’s way,” the union statement said.
Families whose children qualify will be given the choice of whether they want their children to return to school or have them continue learning online.
In an interview Wednesday, Santelises said a phone survey of 20,000 parents indicated that about half of families will not send their children back to school, while a quarter of them want the opportunity for in-person instruction. The remainder responded they would consider returning if certain conditions are in place, she said.
Santelises said the list of schools will not be made public for several days. Schools would be chosen, in part, on the basis of how prepared they are to take students.
If conditions allow, the school system also plans to gradually increase the number of schools and students attending in-person classes.
The school system has not had an outbreak of COVID-19 since it began bringing students back in the summer; however, Santelises said she would close all schools if there is a large spike in new community cases and the health commissioner advises her to.
The school system will use its experience in reopening schools for summer school and in opening learning centers that have had few COVID-19 cases to guide the reentry of a larger number of students. The district has created procedures for everything from cleaning to social distancing that must be in place before students can return. The district has been working since June to outfit heating and air-conditioning systems with new and better air filtering.
Everyone who enters school buildings will be asked a series of questions about their health and have their temperature taken.
Santellises said she has leaned on the advice of the health department, as well as an advisory committee made up of doctors and experts from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and Morgan State University.
Parents have doubts that the city school system, which historically has not had enough supplies in schools, will be prepared. For instance, soap and toilet paper were missing in some bathrooms during pre-pandemic times.
“My skepticism is that parents are often given robust plans, but the implementation of those plans falls to staff," said Melissa Schober, who is on the city school system’s Parent and Community Advisory Board. Often there aren’t enough staff either in the schools or in the central office to carry out plans or check to see that the protocols are being followed, she said.
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Santelises acknowledged the concern is valid, and said the purchasing of personal protective equipment such as masks for staff and teachers, as well as soap and cleaning supplies, has been centralized to ensure that every school has enough.
Staff will be asked to volunteer to come back in-person, but some staff who teach students with high needs will be required to return. Employees with medical conditions and childcare concerns can ask for an accommodation or take a leave of absence.
“Our essential responsibility is to meet the needs of all our students, especially those who are most vulnerable," said Santelises, adding that online classes are not working for everyone. “It is not working for too many English language learners, too many kindergartners. It is not working for too many of our homeless. It is not working for the students who aren’t showing up.”
Even before the pandemic started, she said, students were falling behind.
“We cannot add to the number of students who cannot read by the third grade. We cannot add to the number of students who are not graduating from city schools not prepared to earn a living wage," Santelises said.
"We must disrupt this cycle.”