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Maryland schools enter 'uncharted territory’ while planning for two-week shutdown for coronavirus

Baltimore City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises and other school administrators around the state are ramping up efforts to make sure the needs of students and staff are met during an unprecedented two-week school closure.
Baltimore City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises and other school administrators around the state are ramping up efforts to make sure the needs of students and staff are met during an unprecedented two-week school closure.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Schools systems around the state were adjusting quickly to the new reality of a two-week school closing brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Baltimore City Public Schools will open 10 locations Monday for students to get meals. Baltimore County middle and high school students went home Friday with their laptops. And Anne Arundel County was gearing up to provide students with online classes while broadcasting lessons on TV channels.

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But despite the planning, some school systems are still struggling to get measures in place and the specter of a longer shutdown loomed in the back of many school leaders’ minds. Unlike a snow day, which brings a delightful break, teachers and administrators are worried that the health emergency would amplify the inequities for students without easy access to technology and food.

“This is a time for focused, excellent execution. This is about flexible thinking and the ability to adjust,” said Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises.

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City schools already had a plan in place for an emergency shutdown for the coronavirus, but everyone will need to make speedy adjustments when necessary, she said.

School systems immediately focused on plans to provide food to students and to deliver some academic work. On Friday, plans for the delivery of meals to students who normally get them for free at school seemed a work in progress. While the city will have 10 sites up and running for grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches as early as Monday, advocates in Baltimore County were at first concerned the response was inadequate, and Harford County officials said they had not finalized plans.

Anne Arundel has one of the most extensive plans. It will open 52 feeding centers offering free lunches each day, and will have mobile vans to distribute food.

Some school systems, such as the Baltimore city and county, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties had packets of academic work ready to give students Friday or hand out or send out Monday, but in most cases, those assignments were not intended to be a substitute for actual lessons.

“Our preliminary plans are very general just to keep kids working a little bit, but they aren’t really as focused as we would hope to keep kids moving forward in the curriculum,” said Harford Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson said.

Many school systems planned to begin deep cleaning of schools and buses. Santelises said extra cleaning supplies ordered some time ago have begun arriving, and even the private taxis that transport a limited number of students would be sanitized.

Because city schools were closed Friday for a day of teacher training, there wasn’t enough time to give out packets of work assignments. They will be available for pick up Monday at schools from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and also will be available online.

Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon has suggested that school systems hold classes during the planned spring break, which for many students was scheduled for April 6-13. If that happens, students would lose only about four days of school, an interruption no greater than a long winter snow storm.

However, there were hints that the closure could extend far longer. In a statement, Salmon said administrators, faculty, staff and parents should “begin to prepare for and implement measures for the continuity of educational services during a prolonged period.”

Sending home a million school children will disrupt the lives of thousands of workers who must find child care or miss work to stay home.

The state education department is developing plans to make sure children of emergency services personnel have access to childcare. How that will happen in the next three days is unclear, and Salmon declined to be interviewed.

"We don’t know what the future will bring. We are out for two weeks. Is that the end of it or will it be longer?” said Baltimore County Superintendent Darryl Williams. Lots of questions remain to be answered, he said, about graduation or spring athletics or testing. “We don’t have those particulars. We are really taking it day by day.”

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The sudden school closings have brought out the best in the Baltimore city community, Santelises said. In the hours after the announcement she said she received phone calls and emails from every type of Baltimorean, from grandmothers who say they can take in a few kids to CEOs of major institutions offering support.

“Yes, this is a challenge, but with everything Baltimore has been through, these are times when resiliency will come through...," she said. “It is heartening the number of people who care about kids in Baltimore City.”

Some Baltimore County education advocates were concerned that children would go hungry after word went out Friday morning that only six high schools would serve lunches. Later in the day, however, the county schools expanded the number to 31 sites.

“If this is the solution for the next two weeks, they are leaving children hungry,” said Yara Cheikh, the parent of four children. “The crisis is demonstrating the weaknesses of our infrastructure, feeding, transportation and access to the internet.”

If schools remained closed for long, Santelises said, providing academic services to children will be more difficult.

“As an equity issue, we have to make sure there are learning opportunities across the district no matter what their technological capacities,” she said.

In Carroll County, school officials said they began working more than a week ago to prepare online materials alongside more traditional materials for students who have less access to the internet and communications devices.

Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing the majority of the state’s teachers, said she’s concerned that children have their basic needs taken care of and are not left alone while parents work. She also hopes school districts will pay hourly workers if they aren’t on the job.

“It is uncharted territory that we have never been in before,” said Bost, adding she wants to help people who could lose pay and potentially lose their houses.

A prolonged closure, Bost said, would be “devastating” for the education of children, but she said teachers were growing concerned about the potential of being exposed to the virus in their classrooms. Children have shown to be less affected by the virus.

Baltimore County’s Williams said he expects hourly workers may be helpful taking care of extra cleaning and food distribution.

Late Friday, Cindy Sexton, president of the county teachers union, said the school officials had given hourly workers assurances they be paid through the two week shutdown.

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