No easy answers to educating amid a pandemic in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

An empty classroom at Sinclair Lane Elementary School in Baltimore, Md., on April 14, 2020.

We don’t envy the task before the Baltimore City Public School System: determining how best to provide a safe and equitable education amid a frightening pandemic to tens of thousands of city schoolchildren — all while balancing the health needs, both physical and mental, of families, teachers, support staff and administrators. It is, in a word, daunting, particularly when you factor in the other challenges the city already faces, including inadequate funding and facilities for its particular student population, which includes a large percentage of children from disadvantaged backgrounds for whom access to reliable meals is often, by necessity, a higher priority than access to education.

A plan proposed to teachers this month by schools CEO Sonja Santelises recommends a hybrid education model in the fall, alternating online and in-person classes, with younger students receiving more classroom instruction and older kids more distance learning. Face masks would be required for all staff and students, but social distancing reduced from the gold standard we’ve all been taught of 6 feet apart to as little as 4 feet “to accommodate a greater number of students in-person in school buildings.”


That last piece drew swift criticism from Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonté Brown, who complained that administrators “should be way more heavily focused on protecting human life” and made a point of saying the union might not be on board with such compromises. City schools were already “underfunded” and “under-resourced” pre-pandemic, she said.

It’s hard to argue with that. Many city schools fail to provide adequate temperature controls in the classroom, safe drinking water or learning spaces free from rodent infestation. Why should we trust them to put in place the kinds of protocols required to not just teach our children, but prevent them from potentially contracting and spreading a deadly disease to others, including educators? That’s a big ask.


Families who can’t make that leap of faith would be given an all-distance option for learning, which we’re glad to see but are not convinced that’s the best way forward either. The efforts this spring were less than reassuring. Hundreds of kids weren’t engaged in it at all, and few measures were in place to gauge the academic progress — if any — of those who were. Special education students and those for whom English is a second language were unquestionably underserved.

All children in this country have a right to a public education, with constitutionally guaranteed access to equal learning opportunities regardless of their life circumstances. We can say without a doubt that distance learning alone does not offer that. Yet we can’t say distance learning should be avoided, either. These decisions are personal and literally encompass life and death.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out in favor of reopening schools as the best option for children’s overall well-being academically and socially, but stops short of saying it should be required, as President Donald Trump has called for. Instead, the physicians recommend districts make decisions based on their virus threat. In their guidance, the AAP also says 6 feet of space between students is not only impossible in many areas, but likely unnecessary, with “spacing as close as 3 feet [approaching] the benefits of 6 feet of space.” That’s the rationale for the city’s 4-foot rule, which seems more reasonable when given this context.

The issues are complex, and the answers to them elusive. One thing that is certain, however, is that the decisions we make should be based on data over emotional response. The scenario we find ourselves in today is unprecedented in our generation, and there is no clear right way forward. We must all be engaged in finding the solutions, swiftly and safely: families, schools, and, yes, unions. Educators, like thousands of others in critical industries, will need to make hard decisions about the risks they’re willing to take, should in-person education be deemed the best choice. While their own health can’t be ignored, there’s an argument to be made that they’re every bit as essential as first responders to the health and future of our nation.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.