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COVID debate, concerns and questions mark the return to schools after winter break in the Baltimore area

Baltimore-area school superintendents and political leaders kept their promises to reopen schools after winter break despite soaring COVID-19 cases, but the first four days have been plagued by school closings, acrimonious public debate, and questions about vaccinations and testing.

Each day this week has brought the closing of more Baltimore County schools — 25 by Thursday because case numbers rose to untenable levels or too many staffers called out of work. Another seven schools moved classes online for specific grade levels, according to the system website.

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No teachers union called for a return to online learning and it seemed clear that, unlike in Chicago where the mayor shut down schools over labor unrest, Baltimore-area schools would remain open as long as the Omicron wave did not take down too many staff.
No teachers union called for a return to online learning and it seemed clear that, unlike in Chicago where the mayor shut down schools over labor unrest, Baltimore-area schools would remain open as long as the Omicron wave did not take down too many staff. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

In Baltimore City, a debate over what the school system should do to keep people safe and whether they should stay open erupted with dueling news conferences two days apart, one hosted by school administration officials at the North Avenue headquarters and the other organized by the Baltimore Teachers Union.

In Howard County, 7,400 students and community members signed a petition asking for the school system to go online in the face of rising case numbers.

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Meanwhile, some parents agonized on social media over whether it was safe to send their children to school.

And Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, expressed concern over community spread and inconsistent virus mitigation strategies across jurisdictions as Gov. Larry Hogan declared a 30-day state of emergency and hospitalizations and case rates rose to new pandemic records.

Still, no teachers union called for a return to online learning, and it seemed clear that, unlike in Chicago where the mayor shut down schools due to labor unrest, Baltimore-area schools would remain open as long as the latest coronavirus wave did not take down too many staff. Only Prince George’s County has switched all its schools temporarily to online learning, while 89 schools in Montgomery County are on the verge of going to online instruction if testing positivity rates among their student bodies rise slightly, according to The Washington Post.

To keep schools open for children, all communities must take a vested interest in consistently following virus mitigation protocols, Bost said.

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“The more we can contain it in communities, we can contain it in our schools,” she said. “We’re all connected and intertwined with one another.”

Bost called for uniform masking mandates across the state and for the state to deploy members of the National Guard to help overwhelmed schools and nurses manage testing and contact tracing. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan implemented Tuesday several executive orders designed to give the state government more powers and tools to combat the pandemic, but stopped short of invoking a statewide indoor mask or vaccination mandates.

“I think the coronavirus fatigue and the ‘schools should be doing this’ from everybody is really not helping,” Bost said. “[Educators] are doing the best that they can. We have to figure this out.”

Whether school staffing levels will remain high enough to keep schools open may not be answered until next week when schools have been open for more time. The city opened all but one school — the National Academy Foundation — on Thursday morning.

Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said staffing was an issue, but she was calling on community partners to help. She said some central office staff had been deployed to schools to fill in as teachers where possible.

Cindy Sexton, president of the Baltimore County teachers union, said staffing shortages have reached a “crisis level.”

“We’re worried about quality of instruction,” Sexton said. “We know it’s the desire of the governor and state superintendent to stay in-person. We agree students learn best in person, but we’re reaching a crisis level and it’s overwhelming.”

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury reiterated Monday that “schools need to stay open,” adding that his view is aligned with those of U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sexton’s union, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, is asking for more transparency at the individual school level about what specific factors contributed to a closure. Educators also are worried about masking enforcement and school nurses, who are overwhelmed by the number of symptomatic students coming to them, Sexton said.

This school year already has been challenging for educators who, in addition to their regular duties, are being asked to cover additional periods for absent colleagues and to prepare take-home materials for quarantining students, she said. The county school system took the unusual step of extending its Thanksgiving vacation specifically to give educators a break and prevent burnout.

Sexton said she supports a short-term, systemwide return to virtual learning until the staffing shortages are “under control.”

The county union’s leadership scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the staffing issues.

“I do believe if we can stay in-person and provide continuity of instruction, that’s what we should do. But a very short-term virtual stint may be appropriate given the level of staffing shortages,” Sexton said. “Even if it’s just one week, give people a chance to quarantine and stay home.”

As Baltimore County students returned, the system temporarily moved instruction online for some or all students at 32 schools through at least Friday.

According to the school system, the decision to close the schools was made in collaboration with the state health and education officials and the Baltimore County health department. Officials considered several factors in closing the schools including the number of students and staff who are testing positive for the virus and quarantining, and other vacancies.

In Baltimore City, teachers and some parents are calling on the school system to change how it determines who receives weekly, asymptomatic testing.

Currently, anyone who wants to be tested can be, but parents must sign a consent form. Parents of about 46,000 of the city’s 77,000 enrolled students have given that consent, according to schools spokesman Andre Riley. Weekly testing for staff, including vaccinated teachers, is now mandatory, but the school system is not enforcing its call that all teachers be vaccinated.

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The teachers and parents say the system should test everyone, unless the parent submits an “opt out” form. Such increased testing would keep schools safer, they argue.

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But Santelises has said she is concerned about a system that takes away agency from Black and brown parents who have long felt their views are not taken into consideration.

Riley said the school system will be using rapid testing as well as saliva testing for high schoolers and pool testing for elementary and middle school students.

“We have 26,000 rapid tests on hand and another 13,000 ordered. The state sends us batches of additional tests regularly,” he said. “We have enough rapid tests to cover our needs at this time. We are currently using rapid tests for staff during the return to in-person learning, as well as symptomatic individuals.”

In addition, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott is supplying the system with 100,000 rapid tests and 80,000 N95 high-filtration masks.

At the teachers union’s news conference Wednesday, City Council member Zeke Cohen, who announced he recently tested positive for the virus, said the teachers union, parents and other groups had gotten its first donation of 13,000 masks as part of a campaign it was launching to gather protective gear for schools.

After 18 months of near total shutdown, schools were beginning to return to normal in the region when the more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus hit after Thanksgiving.

Amber Phelps, a Baltimore City College literature teacher, said she felt she was beginning to hit her stride in the beginning of December. But then she tested positive, she believes because of contact in the school.

“I love my students. I love my job,” she said. However, she said, important learning time has been lost coping with testing and other pandemic-related issues.

Students wear coats in classroom because windows need to be left open for ventilation, she said.

“Most students are not participating in the testing program,” she said, speaking at the BTU news conference Wednesday. “Basic safety measures need to be in place.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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