Last week, Baltimore City Public Schools announced that it will be opening the school year virtually and delaying plans for hybrid in-person instruction. Schools CEO Sonja Santelises based this difficult decision off of the current public health conditions, in addition to feedback received from families in a variety of virtual town halls and surveys throughout the summer. This announcement echoes similar plans for reopening schools in Montgomery and Prince George’s County, in addition to many other school jurisdictions throughout the country.
While I am well aware of the health concerns associated with reopening schools and the tragic cases of young people and teachers who have died of the coronavirus, I’m distraught at the thought of our kids in the city missing more school. The consequences, many of which are still unknown, of our schools remaining closed are so immense that it is difficult to fully articulate. Like months of academic losses and a growing disparity in educational outcomes between high- and low-income children. The threat to children’s mental health. The likelihood of hospitals reporting an increase in child abuse cases while teachers are unable to report them. Many of our students depend on school for their only meals of the day and will be unable to receive them.
All of our students are at risk of academic and social losses in missing school, however, our students with special needs who have Individualized Education Programs are at an even greater risk. These students receive a variety of necessary services in their schools that are extremely difficult to replicate online at home with families finding the virtual services being offered sadly insufficient. These families have felt overwhelmed since the pandemic has started and are desperately seeking a return to school for their children. Many families locally and across the country are beginning to speak out, starting petitions and even filing lawsuits due to poor online instruction.
Out of the roughly 79,187 students enrolled in Baltimore City Public Schools, about 14.6% of them have a disability. It is imperative that we provide some form of in-person instruction to these students who need it the most.
Dr. Santelises noted in her reopening plan announcement that, “We will assess the need to bring in small groups of students, as necessary, during the virtual learning period this fall.” Further, in a recent CNN interview, Dr. Santelises mentioned how our district has already had success this summer in offering forms of in-person instruction for small groups and that this remains a goal. As a teacher in the district at a school for students with special needs, I am deeply encouraged by this news and hope that we can continue to expand on these much-needed options for our students.
In thinking about how we can expand our in-person special education offerings, I am confident we can do so. We already have small student-teacher ratios which would allow our classrooms to safely operate under Centers for Disease Control guidelines and we have outdoor and unused spaces that could be utilized if necessary. Additionally, our students are eligible for transportation services that would allow for a socially-distanced trip to and from school without having to take crowded city buses. There would still be challenges and much-needed resources, but nothing our team of educators wouldn’t be able to overcome for the sake of meeting the individual needs of our students.
With this being said, I am strongly encouraging our school district to allow for schools serving special needs children the option to reopen in a flexible, hybrid manner at the start of the year. The “need to bring in small groups of students” has already been “assessed” in the past five months of this pandemic and the need is urgent. Our students with disabilities have a legal obligation to a “free and appropriate education” which is not being fulfilled through online instruction.
Ryan Hooper (email@example.com) is a high school social studies teacher in Baltimore.