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Maryland elected officials step in to support Baltimore keeping schools open in face of rising parental clamor

A cadre of Baltimore’s political leaders stands behind City School CEO Sonja Santelises’ decision to keep schools open in face of an increasing clamor from teachers and parents to shut school buildings.

At a news conference Monday morning, a half dozen political leaders joined Santelises to underscore the need to keep schools open in the face of the rapidly spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus. Santelises announced the addition of rapid tests to the multi-layered testing program the city schools already use, and said the snowstorm would require her to bump back the return to schools for all students to Thursday.

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City School CEO Sonja Santelises announced at a press conference the addition of rapid tests to the multi-layered testing program the city already uses, and said the snowstorm would require her to bump back the return to schools for all students to Thursday, but a half dozen political leaders joined her to underscore the need to keep schools open in the face of the omicron variant.
City School CEO Sonja Santelises announced at a press conference the addition of rapid tests to the multi-layered testing program the city already uses, and said the snowstorm would require her to bump back the return to schools for all students to Thursday, but a half dozen political leaders joined her to underscore the need to keep schools open in the face of the omicron variant. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The elected officials said they were concerned the city’s most vulnerable children not again be locked out of the place that provides them with food, emotional support and learning.

“The omicron variant is once again causing unimaginable disruptions, but those disruptions cannot extend to our students and our schools,” said Maryland state Senate President Bill Ferguson whose children attend city schools.

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He said students had suffered during the long shutdown of schools that began when the pandemic arrived.

“Two years ago we did not have vaccinations and we didn’t have rapid tests and pool testing and new treatments,” Ferguson said. “It is not March of 2020; it is now 2022. And we have multiple levels of prevention to make schools some of the safest places in our city.”

State Del. Stephanie Smith, a Democrat representing Baltimore, said she supports keeping schools open to protect the most vulnerable children.

“We know that schools are not just where people are being educated, it is where they are being nourished to offset the trauma of this life before the pandemic and after,” she said.

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The political show of force came to counter the pressure from the Baltimore Teachers Union that some viewed as having kept most city schools closed for 18 months — from March 2020 to September 2021. Santelises opened schools for a fraction of students to return, but most central Maryland schools remained shut far longer than other schools across the country.

This week’s return to school after a two-week break of travel and family celebrations and omicron spread is likely to be chaotic — full of quarantines, individual school closures and staffing shortages that will pressure school leaders to react quickly.

Already, social media is full of rage from teachers and parents, including some who have badgered health professionals on Twitter.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonte Brown said returning students and teachers to school without requiring negative test results “is a fundamental failure.”

Nearly a year ago, Santelises instituted voluntary weekly testing for all students and staff in order to catch cases before symptoms appear. The extensive testing kept COVID cases lower this fall than in surrounding school systems and was praised as a national model, but it was onerous for some elementary and middle schools that used pool testing. That weekly test requires students to swab their noses and put the swab in one cup with other students in their class. If the pool test is positive, all students in the pool have to quarantine until they have a negative individual test.

Santelises said Monday that the school system wants to keep the pool testing, but do rapid tests for students and staff whenever a pool test is positive. She also said she would accelerate the testing of elementary school students on Thursday, set up a COVID-19 response division, and hire more health and safety workers.

She also will provide more ways for parents to submit testing consent forms, which have been slow to come in, particularly from high school students. The school system performs about 50,000 tests each week and some families and staff have tests done independently and turn the results into the school system. The school system did not provide figures on how many of its 77,000 students are being tested or reporting test results each week.

“We will continue to persevere in these efforts because we know that schooling is critical for our young people” Santelises said. “The last two years have shown that young people need to be in school and we have the means to do this safely. And we will continue to adjust as the conditions change.”

But some city council members are pushing back against the reopening.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, a former teacher representing Baltimore’s 1st District, has called for the school system to postpone the return to in-person instruction until all students and teachers have been tested for the coronavirus. Students and teachers should only return if they test negative, he tweeted Sunday.

“As a father and former teacher I worry that opening too early could cause increased spread and suffering,” he said.

Cohen, a Democrat, acknowledged that closing schools would be “disruptive” for parents and students, and that virtual learning did not work for most city students. “For many, it was awful,” he said. He called the toll the pandemic has taken on the mental health of students “horrific.”

“We face an enemy in COVID that does not care about the massive disruption it causes,” Cohen wrote. “I worry for the safety of students, educators and families. I hope to be wrong.”

City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton also said she would like to see students and teachers tested before returning to school. Middleton, who represents the 6th District in Northwest Baltimore, said she has heard complaints from city residents about long delays in getting test results. Returning to school without those test results would be “irresponsible,” she said.

Middleton said she agrees with concerns expressed by the teacher’s union about infections in the classroom following the holiday break.

”This has to do with safety and working condition of employees,” she said.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a Democrat representing District 3 in Northeast Baltimore, said Monday that he worries about the disruption to students and families if schools are closed, but concerns about health outweigh those worries.

“I continue to support the science and statistical-based approach that we took at the outset of the pandemic where there was an overwhelming consensus … that 10% test positivity is a significant threshold for broadly halting business as usual,” he said.

“We’re well, well over 10% and classrooms are, generally speaking, three times the size of what we would consider a large gathering of 10 people,” he said. “I just can’t make any logical sense of ignoring these facts.”

Dorsey said he has heard concerns from numerous teachers in city schools that the school system is not accurately reporting the number of infections in classrooms.

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“I think that the breadth and effectiveness of testing is being overstated by the schools,” he said.

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Health concerns should outweigh the risk suggested by Santelises of students not ever returning to schools, Dorsey said.

“The chances of never returning I’m most concerned with are individuals and family members who can die from COVID-19,” he said. “Never returning to the classroom is a secondary concern to never continuing to wake up in the morning.”

The debate is playing out online, where public health professionals backed Santelises’ call for schools to stay open. Gigi Gronvall, senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, disputed city schools’ delayed opening on Twitter, saying “children need to be in school.”

”If everyone is masked (they are), there is ventilation (there is) and regular testing (there is), it is a logistical nightmare to do testing before starting school,” Gronvall tweeted. “Omicron is not magic. These measures will prevent school from being the source of spread.”

Gronvall saw immediate push back from parents, teachers and other school community members, who challenged that schools didn’t operate inside vacuums. Testing is not as regular as many would like, and not every classroom is properly ventilated, some argued. Kids can’t mask at lunchtime — and omicron doesn’t wait for them outside the cafeteria doors.

But it’s not schools that are enabling transmission, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at Hopkins’ Center for Health Security who recently announced she plans to leave for Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Nuzzo also disagreed with Cohen’s push for delayed school openings, and said the city’s priorities are not aligned with public health guidance.

“If you cared about the kids of Baltimore City you’d be calling to close packed city bars where no one wears masks, instead of schools where everyone can be masked & vaccinated against serious illness,” Nuzzo tweeted. “School closures cause generational harm. Bars drive transmission, not schools.”

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