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A limited return to in-person education in Baltimore: a difficult decision, but the right one | COMMENTARY

Lisa Austin, right, and Heidi Trasatti, second from right, both schools psychologists, participate in a socially-distanced protest outside the North Avenue school headquarters at a rally organized by the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Parent Community Advisory Board to advocate that schools remain virtual through 2020. Speakers enumerated the various health risks and logistical difficulties of opening schools now. Sept. 30, 2020.
Lisa Austin, right, and Heidi Trasatti, second from right, both schools psychologists, participate in a socially-distanced protest outside the North Avenue school headquarters at a rally organized by the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Parent Community Advisory Board to advocate that schools remain virtual through 2020. Speakers enumerated the various health risks and logistical difficulties of opening schools now. Sept. 30, 2020. (Amy Davis)

It is perfectly reasonable for teachers to demand that safety protocols be put into place and that personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies be made widely available — along with backup plans in the event of a COVID-19 breakout — before agreeing to return to the classroom.

And once meeting those criteria, it is perfectly reasonable for a school system to demand that certain teachers who work with high-need students, for whom virtual learning is not a viable option, come back to the classroom in a gradual, thoughtful, limited manner — even as the pandemic drags on.

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That’s what Baltimore City Public Schools will be asking of some teachers over the next few weeks as it implements in-person learning next month for students at 25 (out of 170), as-yet-unnamed schools who fall into particular high-need categories. It’s a cautious and measured approach to reopening that’s nevertheless more aggressive than other districts in the Baltimore region. The city has a greater percentage of challenged students who require in-person instruction, however.

Among those who will be eligible to return are young learners in pre-K and kindergarten, special education students, English language learners, those experiencing homelessness or who have missed more than 80% of their online classes, children in transition grades (sixth or ninth) and those focusing on a Career and Technology Education path that requires hands-on learning. And, most importantly, the children and their families in the program must choose to be there; virtual remains an education option for all who want it. This is critical for many families with members at risk of significant complications from contracting the virus or who come from areas of high-COVID concentration.

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Teachers, too, will be asked to volunteer. But some will be required to show up even if they don’t want to. And that’s likely to cause understandable concern. In a meeting with The Sun’s editorial board Wednesday morning, Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the school system would maintain traditional medical leave of absence options for eligible teachers and allow for some accommodations for those with child care concerns and other issues, and some creativity in covering classes among teams. But for some reluctant teachers, a choice will have to be made about their futures.

The Baltimore Teachers Union has been consistent in its criticism of a return to in-person education this year, and we don’t seek to minimize their concerns. They’re right to have them; COVID-19 has killed 216,000 Americans. But we would urge the union and its members to be active participants in the conversations about how to safely reopen schools for its members and the tens of thousands of students who rely on them, with the understanding that there are real-life, practical steps that can be taken to promote safety.

Teachers are among the most essential workers in our society on our best days, and possibly even more so during this time of chaos, fear and uncertainty produced by COVID-19. For so many children, schools represent love and safety, a place where they have friends, hot food, people who show concern for them and structure. At school, children are challenged, valued and encouraged to grow in ways they don’t experience at home. For some kids and their families, that all amounts to luxury they can’t afford right now, and they will get by with virtual learning because they can. But for others, virtual learning amounts to no learning.

CEO Santelises acknowledged that teachers are right to raise concerns about there being proper equipment and supplies in place to protect themselves and their students when they’ve often lacked basic items like soap in the past, pre-pandemic. Such materials are usually left to individual schools to provide, she said, but are now being purchased centrally to guarantee that no school runs out. The school system is working closely with health experts and has implemented strict cleaning protocols, distancing requirements and other protective measures. Teachers should trust, but verify: If conditions aren’t as promised, they have every right to walk out.

We don’t want anyone to take unnecessary risks with their lives: teachers, students, staff or administrators. Everyone has individual needs and circumstances they must weigh in deciding what is right for them and their families and what presents the greater risk: staying home or going in. Ideally, enough teachers would step forward to volunteer for in-person learning that no one would have to feel pressured in this phase of reopening. But if not now, it’s only a matter of time before every teacher will have a hard decision to make. We don’t fault those who can’t bring themselves to return, but we ask that they not get in the way of those who want to.

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.

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