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Parents raise questions over scheduling and safety in virtual town hall with Baltimore City schools about coronavirus reopening

The Baltimore City school system held a virtual town hall Thursday with parents and families, answering questions and addressing concerns as the school system finalizes its plan for the return of students this fall.

In the online presentation, schools CEO Sonja Santelises said there are currently no plans to welcome back all students, despite pressure from the federal government to fully open schools.

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Santelises presented the proposal to employees Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s virtual town hall.

Santelises expressed the desire to provide parents with options, from those who want to get their children back to school for in-person classes to those who may not feel comfortable doing so because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The proposal includes the option for an all-virtual learning system or a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning.

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She said the expectation is that schools will begin as scheduled on Aug. 31. A reopening plan must be submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education by Aug. 14, Santelises said, but she wants to inform parents by the last week in July or the first week of August.

Plenty of focus has been placed on the hybrid proposal, Santelises said, which would allow for an alternating schedule of in-person and virtual learning. Under the proposal, students in grades K through 6 would transition gradually into attending school every day while grades 7 through 12 would have a mix of on-site and distance learning.

Santelises said the school system continues to take guidance from “a variety of areas,” including state and local health officials, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

She also provided preliminary results from a survey of families on their perceptions of distance learning, which schools shifted to as the pandemic shuttered in-person gatherings in March. According to the presentation, the survey had gathered 7,665 responses from families representing 159 of the system’s 161 schools as of July 8.

Of those families, 83% said they “received needed support” from teachers and schools during distance learning and 81% of families reported they felt their child’s school communicated “clear expectations” for distance learning.

The presentation also showed that 48% of families reported their child’s emotional well-being was lower during distance learning and 30% of families said their child “did not make academic progress” during distance learning.

With the virtual conference hosted on Facebook and YouTube, the chat box was filled with concerns over safety protocols. Many participants pointed to overcrowding and questioned how schools would enforce social distancing and proper sanitation procedures.

Santelises said the school system has been working to procure large amounts of cleaning materials and personal protective equipment, as well as providing custodial support to understaffed schools. She said over the past decade, such action has been delegated to individual schools, but, amid the health crisis, the school system is centralizing the task to ensure schools are in line with CDC guidelines.

Participants also raised the question of the technology gap for students without access to devices and the internet.

Santelises said the school system continues to purchase more devices to equip students and is in the process of buying an additional 10,000 hotspots to provide internet access.

Lynette Washington, the school system’s chief operations officer, said transportation on school buses also could be impacted by social distancing guidelines. Washington said capacity could be limited and masks would be required for students. Santelises added the school system has been in discussions with legislators about expanding MTA access for high school students.

As for any testing measures, Santelises said there has been an “ongoing discussion” with city officials about mandatory testing for staff and how that could be extended to families.

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Santelises noted that plans are fluid given the ongoing health crisis, but there are provisions in place for students to return to 100% virtual learning if there is a resurgence of the virus in the fall.

Baltimore is one of five Maryland jurisdictions with a positivity rate of over 5% (5.32%). The World Health Organization recommends a rate below 5% before easing coronavirus-related restrictions. Baltimore entered Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan in June.

The school system plans to hold a virtual town hall every Thursday at 1 p.m. for the foreseeable future to provide updates.

Parents and students are encouraged to visit www.baltimorecityschools.org/reopening to give their input via surveys and get more information on the preparation for reopening.

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