In a sign of the growing difficulty of keeping schools open, more than a third of Baltimore City schools will switch to online learning Monday after test results that came in over the weekend showing thousands of students and staff may have COVID-19.
The school system listed 57 schools transitioning temporarily to online learning on its website Sunday evening. Two other schools were closed for what was described as facilities challenges. The city has 155 schools.
Baltimore City Public Schools spokesman Andre Riley said Sunday that those schools closed by positive pool tests will remain virtual all week and return Tuesday, Jan. 18.
Most of the schools that are closing serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade and perform pool testing for the coronavirus, Riley said. A handful of high schools, including Dunbar High School, Independence School Local and Renaissance Academy, also are closed.
“This last-second announcement is voluntary chaos,” said Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonte Brown.
The list, she said, does not include schools have that have one grade or multiple grades that are going online.
“Had the district chosen to follow the BTU’s plan, we would already know more fully who is positive, be ready to return in person, wouldn’t have needlessly spread the virus and would have given parents time to plan,” Brown said.
The teachers union, a parent organization and some City Council members had called for testing of all staff and students to be completed before schools opened so that only those who tested negative could return.
“Thank you for prioritizing the 50 schools, but where are the results from the remaining schools?” asked Larry Simmons, president of the Parent Community Advisory Board. “Many families are completely frustrated to be receiving this news on a Sunday night when many advocated for the district to wait until the 10th.”
The switch to online classes comes as school districts across the region struggle to remain open for in-person instruction as cases of the virus rise to levels not seen before during the pandemic.
Baltimore County schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday to give staff time to prepare for online instruction if it becomes necessary after a full day of negotiations with the five unions that represent the county’s school employees.
School leaders were forced to move instruction online for some or all students at 32 schools, including a majority of high schools. And more than 100 central office staffers were deployed last week to help cover classes, a move that school officials said preserved more than 2,100 hours of in-person instruction over a three-day period.
Schools in Prince George’s County were all online last week.
In the city, students in the kindergarten through eighth grade schools were tested Thursday, the first day they returned after the winter break. Unlike other school systems in the Baltimore region, the city does weekly testing of all staff and all students whose parents have signed consent forms.
The city uses testing that pools a classroom of students and staff in one group. If one person is positive, the entire pool will be positive and each individual in the pool then must be tested to see who has the virus. Students in that pool must quarantine until they have a negative test and can come back to school.
When community spread was low, positive pool tests were annoying but did not result in school shutdowns, but with the highly contagious omicron variant sweeping through the community, the numbers have risen dramatically.
According to one administrator, school system leadership spent most of the weekend trying to understand the extent of the problem and deciding which schools should close. The source, who asked not to be identified to protect their job, said school principals were told to go to online instruction if more than 50% of the pool tests in their school were positive for COVID-19.
A lack of staffing is causing some schools to go virtual, too, Riley said. Central office staff is being deployed to schools Monday to keep them open, and he said asking volunteers to help staff schools is “also on the table.”
Cases of COVID-19 continue to spread rapidly across Maryland, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant first identified around Thanksgiving. The state health department reported 17,252 more coronavirus cases Sunday, bringing its 22-month case count to 830,940.
An additional 52 people were reported Sunday to have died, pushing the state’s death toll from the virus to 11,969.
However, the number of people reported hospitalized with the virus declined for the first time since late November, dropping by 20 from a record of 3,306 reported Saturday. The state’s testing positivity rate was 27.83%, down from more than 29%.
Despite the rising levels, state education and political leaders, along with local superintendents, have promised to keep students in classrooms rather than go back to online instruction that caused serious academic and emotional issues for students.