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Baltimore City will expand in-person learning to more schools; teachers union protests return to classrooms

Baltimore is planning to reopen more elementary schools for in-person learning despite the spike in COVID-19 cases this winter, the city schools’ leader said Tuesday.

“We are expanding our in-person offering to include kindergarten through fifth grade students starting in mid-February,” said CEO Sonja Santelises, adding that more specifics of the plan will be announced Thursday. Some high school students may also have the opportunity to return. Speaking at the school board meeting Tuesday, she said all families will continue to have the option of keeping their children at home to learn online.

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Santelises said the school system cannot wait for teachers to be vaccinated to return students to the classroom. She supported her decision by citing data that shows more than half of the students in third grade through 12th grade have failed at least one course this school year.

“Many of our students are in danger of falling irreparably behind if we do not take action now,” Santelises said. “We will not ignore the needs of students for whom virtual learning is not enough when we have a safe, proven alternative to meet their needs.”

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City school leaders expect initially only 20% to 25% of families to take the city up on their offer and send their children into school buildings.

Baltimore City Public Schools teachers rally Tuesday in their cars outside school headquarters on North Avenue to protest the planned expansion of in-person learning.
Baltimore City Public Schools teachers rally Tuesday in their cars outside school headquarters on North Avenue to protest the planned expansion of in-person learning. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City is one of the few school systems in the state that continues to have students attending in-person, but those roughly 2,000 students are only a small percentage of the district’s 85,000 enrolled. Most Central Maryland students have been limited to online classes since Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon ordered schools closed in March at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The expansion of in-person classes in the city will make it the largest area school system to offer a significant group of students an option to go back to class. Carroll County began allowing elementary students back in the last week.

The city’s announcement is likely to set off a clash with the Baltimore Teachers Union, which was holding a car protest as Santelises was speaking remotely during a city school board meeting.

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More than 30 cars decked out with signs that read “no staff forced in” and “#safenotsilenced” lined up outside school headquarters, honking horns.

Joel Pally, a high school chemistry and physics teacher said with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise and a new variation of it surfacing in Maryland, the district needs to put students and staff safety first.

Parent Angie Winder streams the protest online.
Parent Angie Winder streams the protest online. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

“We know the district is under pressure, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of the safety of students or teachers,” the Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School teacher said.

Pally also expressed concern about the district not properly ventilating schools as promised, which he says is imperative to help curb exposure to the virus.

As a parent of four children, Jason Butler said virtual learning is “nearly impossible” but that it is better than sending kids back to school without knowing whether they can be kept safe. He said returning to in-person learning felt like it would be rushed without a comprehensive testing plan, among other things, in place.

The 38-year-old said the district already has problems keeping schools warm during winter months and cool during hot weather, which led him to question whether the school system is prepared to keep COVID-19 from spreading.

“We see so much trauma every day on a regular basis in Baltimore City,” the Park Heights resident said. “We cannot afford to let our children see the trauma of sickness and death all because of coronavirus.”

Spanish teacher Nathan Ferrell directs cars during the protest.
Spanish teacher Nathan Ferrell directs cars during the protest. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Santelises argued the disruption to in-person learning has been detrimental to city students.

Based on year-over-year rates for the first academic quarter, she said, the number of students who failed classes had increased in every grade and every student group. In middle and high school, Santelises said, the percentage of students failing a course rose to 60%, up from 38% in 2019.

For students in second grade through fifth grade, 55% failed at least one class compared with 30% in 2019. Nearly two in five students in primary grades had failed a subject.

Most alarming, she said, was that 68% of ninth graders failed a class.

In making her case to the school board, Santelises said the school system has met all of the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for school reopening, in some cases going beyond. All schools will have the highest grade of air filters in their buildings or air purifiers in their classrooms. A new dashboard will soon allow the public to see what type of air filtration device is being used at each school.

No instances of transmission of the virus between students or staff have occurred in the city schools since small groups of students were allowed back Sept. 28, Santelises said, adding that contract tracers have been working to detect sources of the virus. While there have been cases in schools, those individuals have contracted the virus in the community rather than the school.

There has been one case of transmission of the virus at a meal distribution site, she said.

Santelises’ announcement comes as virus cases surge across the state and nation. Maryland has reported an average of nearly 3,000 new coronavirus cases daily over the past two weeks — a record since the pandemic began — the highest the rolling average has been since the start of the pandemic. And the 67 new deaths reported Tuesday are the most in a single day since May.

The school system is working with the University of Maryland Medical System to provide on-site COVID-19 testing at schools for those who have symptoms. In addition, Santelises said, the district is working to get testing for those who haven’t shown symptoms.

While the city has been slow to roll out vaccinations, the schools chief said the system is now developing a vaccine distribution plan so that “we will be ready to proceed once the vaccine is available locally.”

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