Baltimore City schools recently decided to listen to the majority of parents, students, teachers and administrators to begin the school year virtually. However, unlike Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties, the city has not yet committed to virtual learning through the first semester.
I am gravely concerned by this and call on our fellow teachers, administrators, parents and students to continue our fight to return to school buildings only when it’s safe. We all want school buildings to open for in-person learning, but under the current climate that is impossible.
Schools have not received enough funding to safely follow social distancing and building reopening guidelines. The federal CARES Act provided only a small percentage of the anticipated costs for safe in-person education. This gap is compounded by the chronic underfunding of Baltimore City schools and Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education funding plan, and a proposed $345 million cut to public schools.
We have numerous buildings without air conditioner or proper air circulation, safe drinking water, or even enough soap in bathrooms. How can we improve school infrastructure and materials to follow safety guidelines with reduced and inadequate funding? The answer cannot be the current national proposal to reduce social distancing guidelines. Instead we must all fight for the U.S. Senate to pass the HEROES Act, for the override of Governor Hogan’s veto, and the city to increase funding for personal protection equipment, air filters and other necessary materials and infrastructure to keep students and school staff safe.
COVID-19 cases are rising across the country, including in Maryland, where there have been days with more than 1,000 new cases. Dr. Deborah L. Birx, a White House adviser on the federal coronavirus response, identified Baltimore as a city requiring “aggressive” action, having a population that is particularly susceptible to COVID-19. In Baltimore, 12.4% of adults have asthma (compared to the 8.4% Maryland average) and our children’s asthma rates are twice the national average, according to the Baltimore City Health Department. This and other medical disparities place our children and families at a greater risk for COVID-19 complications and death.
Considering Baltimore’s increased risk, it is unconscionable that we could open before other school districts in Maryland. Furthermore, recent reports prove schools and children are not as safe as many would like to believe. Israel’s recent surge in coronavirus cases is linked to outbreaks in schools, and they reopened with better numbers than the U.S. In Lake Burton, Georgia, 18% of campers at a YMCA camp tested positive for COVID-19. As of July 14th, Florida’s children had a positivity rate of 31.1% (compared to the state average of 11%) and lung damage is present in otherwise asymptomatic children, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper. As of July 20th, an outbreak in Nueces County, Texas outbreak included 85 infants. Recent data also shows children over the age of 10 are just as likely to spread the disease as adults. This doesn’t even address the danger posed to teachers and other school staff, of which 24% are high risk, or families of students.
As we consider an eventual reopening of school buildings we must remember that COVID-19 is novel, our understanding of its dangers is constantly evolving and initial data that showed child safety came during a time when school buildings were closed. School, city and state leadership have a choice about when to move from a fully virtual to hybrid model. Both have challenges. Both require changes to traditional education. Both require further technological funding and support for families. Both require extra child care. Both require coalitions between politicians, schools and families. But only one option is safe.
Baltimore and all of Maryland need to join the school systems that are opening with virtual instruction for the full first semester. We must commit to only returning once the funding, infrastructure, plans and data allow for true safety for all of us. The health and lives of our school staff, children and their families depend on it. We must keep each other safe.
Michelle Zimmerman (email@example.com) is a Baltimore teacher.