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‘We can do this': How an East Baltimore school is protecting students and staff from the coronavirus

There’s no lively chatter among students, no laughter coming down the halls and no screeching of desk chairs across the floor at Henderson-Hopkins School in East Baltimore. Instead, students are seated facing forward, masks on, headsets plugged in and staring at their computer screens.

Henderson-Hopkins, which normally serves students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, has been open since September offering more than 100 students a day — in two separate programs — a place to learn online. The centers have provided them with laptops, reliable internet, classroom supervision and two meals a day.

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More than two dozen city schools reopened this week for in-person lessons for small groups of some of Baltimore’s most vulnerable students. Henderson-Hopkins wasn’t among those schools, but for two months it has served as a test case for whether schools can operate safely under the city school system’s coronavirus protocols.

So far, there have been no cases of COVID-19 among the staff and students at Henderson-Hopkins.

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“We can do this and we can do it safely,” said Peter Kannam, the school’s principal. Safety has to be the priority, he said. “We take it super seriously.”

The school hosts two separate programs — one run by the city school system and a second run by the school and the Y of Central Maryland called the Safe Center for Online Learning, funded by a state grant. Each uses a separate entrance, but the same safety measures are in place. Masks are mandatory and any student whose mask falls down is corrected. Students stand on marks on the floor 9 feet apart when they are standing in lines.

Classrooms are capped at 12 students each and many rooms have even fewer students. Bathrooms are cleaned once during the schoolday and surfaces are wiped down twice. At night the building is deep-cleaned. It’s expensive, Kannam said, and he’s not even sure whether he will have enough money to pay for it through June.

While it may not feel like school before the pandemic, students have time to run around outside, play in the gym and do art. They also have on-site mental health counseling.

“It is pretty cool,” said Cameron Ferguson, 8, who said he gets help from adults in signing in to his classes. “I like going to school. You can do math and I really love math.”

For his mother, Shenia Ferguson, being able to have her two boys stay at school from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. has allowed her to work 12-hour days as a clinician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, just blocks away.

“It is really, really helpful,” Ferguson said. “Just knowing that he has somewhere to go and he can do his schoolwork, it means a lot.”

She drops the boys at their grandmother’s house and she takes them to school and picks them up. At the same time, she is studying to get her nursing degree.

“Tired? They have to find a new word," she said of her physical state.

“Just knowing that he has somewhere to go and he can do his school work, it means a lot.”


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At the front entrance, students have a temperature check, then pick up breakfast and walk to their classroom where they eat. Inside classrooms, desks are 6 feet apart with plastic barriers on top of each desk. Students are taught by city schoolteachers online, but other workers supervise their care, making sure they are connected to the internet and on the right lesson.

The school, a large, modern facility with a gym and outdoor field, gives students the opportunity to get some physical exercise and to do art projects or other activities in the afternoons. Students are sent outside to walk from one end of the building to another to prevent hallway crowding. All the windows can open and a tent set up outside can be used for eating or holding class.

Karen Starliper, a resident principal, stands watch at an employee entrance. After a temperature screening, she checks an app on the employees' phone that indicates whether they have answered a series of daily health screening questions. While there was concern in the beginning, Starliper said, employees now recognize the school has set high safety standards.

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“I think the more consistent we have been, the more the anxiety has come down,” Starliper said.

There have been worrying incidents. A cafeteria worker with coronavirus symptoms was turned away at the door one day. The school closed the cafeteria for a day, but the employee tested negative. And one day a second grader threw up in his classroom. Everyone in his classroom was sent home, but he didn’t have the virus and tested negative.

The learning center operated by the city school system has students come from 12 different schools, so even though students are divided into grades, they can be working on different subjects or different assignments, a juggling act for those who are supervising them.

The school’s daily attendance, combining students at home and in school, is at 93%, said Kannam, but he believes it would have been far lower if families hadn’t had the option of sending their children to school.

The first goal was to make sure students without internet access or supervision at home would be able to keep up with their lessons.

Fourth and fifth grade students take part in online classes in The Student Learning Center, an in-person program at Henderson-Hopkins, a charter school in East Baltimore. Henderson-Hopkins houses two programs for in-person learning, The Student Learning Center and Safe Center for Online Learning, a program run by The Y of Central Maryland. The populations from both schools are kept separate. November 14, 2020.
Fourth and fifth grade students take part in online classes in The Student Learning Center, an in-person program at Henderson-Hopkins, a charter school in East Baltimore. Henderson-Hopkins houses two programs for in-person learning, The Student Learning Center and Safe Center for Online Learning, a program run by The Y of Central Maryland. The populations from both schools are kept separate. November 14, 2020. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

As the first quarter ends, Kannam said they are finding that while students may be signed on they have not done as well academically and grades are lower. Some students hadn’t turned in as many as 20 assignments by the time the Y program started Sept. 28.

“What people aren’t talking about is the academic loss,” he said. “While I am proud that everyone is doing this and making it work, the quality of the work is not there. I really worry about that.”

Whether the school will remain open as the number of new cases in the community continues to rise in the city and Maryland “is an open question,” he said. "We have to balance the needs of our families, the academic loss of students and the community spread.”

Kannam has stockpiled supplies, including 45,000 masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. Ultimately, the school system makes the call to stay open or close.

Ferguson said she will continue to bring her sons as long as the school is open and she has felt comfortable that they are safe. But the rise in cases makes her nervous.

“I don’t want my sons to get sick," she said.

If she had the choice to stay home with them she would, but as a health care worker who needs to put food on the table, she doesn’t have that option.

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