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Baltimore City schools delay plans to expand in-person learning

Baltimore City will delay expanding its school reopening by two weeks, giving the school system more time to prepare for the arrival of kindergarten through second graders.

City school leaders have rewritten the plan announced several weeks ago that staggered the reopening of classrooms to all students, starting Feb. 16 and ending in April.

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The school system now says it needs more time to address parent and teacher questions, launch a pilot program for testing people with no symptoms, allow more teachers to be vaccinated and identify areas where more resources are needed.

The additional two weeks will allow principals to open their schools and let parents see the precautions that are in place, as well as give the system as a whole a chance to prepare.

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“It gives a little bit of breathing room, but then it is full steam ahead,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for the school system.

The school system will launch a dashboard later this week that will allow the public to see what changes have been made to ventilation systems at each school. Schools that don’t have improvements that meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines will not be opened, said Andre Riley, a Baltimore schools spokesman.

The Baltimore City school system already has opened 27 schools for about up to 2,000 students, and had gotten praise from Gov. Larry Hogan for its efforts to expand in-person instruction by Feb. 16.

Hogan announced recently that he wanted all school systems to return some students by March 1, and threatened to take unspecified actions if they did not comply. The city remains ahead of many ahead of many other school systems in its attempts to reopen and provide options for parents.

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Despite significant opposition, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises has continued to say she supports getting as many students back in classrooms as possible. First quarter grades show an increase in the percentage of students failing courses compared to the fall of 2019, with the increases particularly marked among ninth grade students.

Parents of city public school students have been given the option of deciding whether they want their children to return to a classroom.

Perkins-Cohen said she does not yet have system-wide numbers on how many parents have decided to send their children back, but principals have indicated a “fair number” will do so.

The school system had estimated about 20% of families would decide to send their children back, and Joe Kane, chair of the school system’s Parent and Community Advisory Board.

Kane said Wednesday’s announcement to delay is consistent with what many parents believe: The school system was attempting to expand in-person learning too quickly.

“I think the decision to delay is a good one while we work toward ensuring safety,” he said.

Kane called the effort to bring more students back March 1 “not realistic” and said that the goal should be to first help those students who need special services or have been most hurt by the lack of in-person instruction for nearly a year.

He hopes that during the next several weeks the school system will continue to readjust the plans.

The revised plan now calls for the youngest children to return March 1, and says that the return to school buildings will continue to be staggered over weeks. Grades three through five and ninth grade students will return March 15. Seniors will begin April 12, so that they can spend the last quarter of their senior year in school.

The remainder of the schedule for returning students will be announced in March.

The city’s teachers union has strongly opposed expanding in-person classes until teachers have a chance to get fully vaccinated and other safety improvements are made, including upgrading ventilation systems. The union is holding a car rally Wednesday night to protest the reopening.

Baltimore Teachers Union representative Zach Taylor called the delay in the return to schools a victory for the union.

“We believe this is a good and important step to a safer reopening,” Taylor said.

But the BTU still has concerns.

“At the same time we want a commitment to some important measures including access to full vaccination before mandated return to buildings,” Taylor said. “We still want to return to buildings we just want to make sure we are doing it safely.”

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