The union representing Baltimore City teachers is calling on the system to close this week in order to move instruction online through Jan. 7, citing the “tremendous intensification of COVID-19 transmissions” within school buildings and the broader community.
In a letter delivered Wednesday to city schools CEO Sonja Santelises and school board members, President Diamonté Brown said the Baltimore Teachers Union leadership have met with system representatives and are concerned about the “lack of preparation and contingency plans regarding the surge of the omicron variant.”
On Wednesday, Maryland health officials reported that the state’s seven-day average positivity rate had surpassed 12%, adding to growing concern about the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus and the risk of transmission during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
“A school-by-school, wait-and-see approach creates crises in schools and confusion across the district,” Brown states in the letter. “We need district-wide action now.”
School system representatives did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Wednesday.
The call for closure follows the Maryland State Department of Education’s announcement Monday that state education leaders would only support a local school system’s transition to online learning “under the most exigent of circumstances.”
The union is asking the school system for teachers to post assignments online Thursday morning, allowing staff to spend the remainder of the day preparing for online instruction in the new year. The letter goes on to say that schools should offer asynchronous learning — meaning students complete work on their own time — on Jan. 3-4 while opening school buildings for technology distribution and for administering or distributing COVID tests to students and families.
Every student and staff member should be tested for COVID upon a return to in-person instruction, the union states in the message to system leaders. The union also called for all air filters and ventilation systems to be checked and changed or upgraded after school-based staff reported this week that some air filters and purifiers require maintenance.
“There is much we do not yet know, but what is clear is that transmissions are at record levels and vaccination does not eliminate infection,” the message states. “It is prudent and necessary for City Schools to consider all possibilities. However, there have only been minimal changes to the status quo and we have not heard of any contingency plans that could be enacted if circumstances continue to worsen.”
Cristina Duncan Evans, a representative in the Baltimore Teachers Union, is worried that the school system’s central offices are scheduled to close between Christmas and New Year’s.
“It opens up the question of whether there would be any contact tracing over the break or administrative work to ensure that we are testing in the first week of January across the board,” Duncan Evans said. “We need people to be tested in the first day [following the break].”
Duncan Evans pointed out that Baltimore City is the only jurisdiction in the state where students are expected to use public transportation to travel to schools, which may be outside of their own neighborhoods.
Union officials write that the school system “must be prepared to adapt to widespread transmission, student illness, and staff absences.”
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Duncan Evans also called into question the accuracy of the school system’s coronavirus dashboard, which she said fails to account for students whose guardians did not sign consent forms to be tested for COVID at school. As of Wednesday afternoon, the dashboard states that 510 cases were reported in the last 10 days.
“Our union members who work in schools as well as those who don’t are facing a lot of conflicting information,” Duncan Evans said. “All they want is to keep themselves and their families safe.”
Some students have joined the calls for closure this week. Student organizers behind the Students Organizing for a Multicultural and Open Society group published Tuesday evening a petition calling for schools to immediately close for in-person learning until at least 14 days after the scheduled return from winter break.
Baltimore City College senior Charlotte Juengel, who helped organize the petition drive, said she was shocked to learn that her school was reporting 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday and Tuesday.
“As much as we’d love to remain in person, that can be super overwhelming,” she said. “I think we can get caught up in wanting normalcy and forget that it’s not safe right now.”
The 17-year-old said her family has kept her home from classes since Friday out of concern over the virus’ spread. Students, she said, shouldn’t have to choose between their health safety and education.
The petition has garnered more than 700 signatures since Charlotte posted it Tuesday evening.