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Baltimore City schools will scale back reopening of schools in face of rising coronavirus cases

In the face of rising coronavirus cases, Baltimore City Public School leaders will push forward with reopening of school buildings for the first time in eight months, while scaling back the number from 44 to 27.

The decision, announced by schools CEO Sonja Santelises at Tuesday’s school board meeting, will make the city one of the region’s few jurisdictions that hasn’t delayed reopening schools or moved entirely online.

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Santelises said that, on the advice of health experts, she would allow 1,200 students to attend those 27 schools, including two schools for special needs. She also announced the launch of a new mobile testing laboratory operated by University of Maryland that can travel to schools and test students and staff with symptoms, providing results in about 48 hours.

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa and Dr. Charles Callahan, who heads testing at the Baltimore Convention Center for the University of Maryland, spoke at the school board meeting in favor of keeping schools open.

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Santelises said the action “really aligns with our commitment to expand in-person learning slowly and gradually as we have done this past summer.” She said less than 2% of the school system’s total enrollment will return to schools.

The school system operated summer school for hundreds of students and then opened buildings for learning centers where students without internet could go to learn online. About 1,000 students are attending learning centers operated by the school system and the city’s Recreation and Parks Department.

The schools opening Monday will allow students to attend traditional classrooms with their teachers for the first time since the pandemic began. The schools are opening for students who are most in need during the pandemic, including those without internet access, special needs students and those who are recent immigrants.

Sixth and ninth grade students — who are new to either middle or high school — are being asked to return as well. The school system asked parents at those schools whether they wished their children to return and are giving them the option of continuing to learn online from home.

In national polls, about half of parents say they want their children to be back to in-person instruction, but the school system has not said what percentage of parents will opt in to the reopened school buildings.

Santelises also announced at the meeting that a new coronavirus dashboard, listing the cases in each school, is expected to go live immediately. The dashboard will allow the community to see the number of positive cases by school, whether there is a potential exposure to others in the building and any closure of learning pods or classes.

The dashboard will supplement similar statewide reporting of school cases that went live late last week. Since Sept. 28, the city schools have had only one case of coronavirus among students and staff, and no cases have spread within the schools. At least one school nurse and one nurse aide, who work for the health department, have been sickened and one has died.

The announcement was met by immediate criticism from parents and teachers who testified at the meeting, saying that there were not enough safeguards in place to ensure student and staff safety.

One parent, Melissa Schober, representing the system’s Parent and Community Advisory Board, said the city should have outlined more specific health metrics that prescribe whether schools will be closed or open for in-person instruction.

She also expressed concern that some of the schools scheduled to reopen are in areas of the city with higher levels of the illness.

Santelises said school officials have scaled back the opening of schools located in areas of the city with high rates of the virus.

Other parents said having their children in learning centers had improved their children’s mental health and intellectual growth.

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Callahan said he supported the return to schools because he believes the community will get the virus spread down and that the long-term health of today’s students is dependent on them getting a good education with the opportunity to go on to college. Those who don’t complete an education are more likely to have a variety of serious illnesses in middle age, he said.

“I think we need to make the best case that this is the best thing we can do for the health of our children,” he said.

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