Parents Raise Concerns Over Proposed School Reopening Plans in Baltimore City

Baltimore City schools chief Sonja Santelises.

Baltimore City Public Schools’ reopening plan for the upcoming school year is designed to provide families with choices and to prioritize safety, schools CEO Sonja Santelises said during a virtual town hall Thursday.

In her presentation, Santelises outlined two options that families can choose for the fall: an all-virtual school year or a hybrid model.

“What we know is that there is not one uniform solution, nor one uniform experience for all students,” Santelises said. “There is a variety and…one of the main reasons why providing families with options is a major thrust of the planning and proposals.”

An “all virtual academy” is for families who do not feel comfortable sending their children to brick-and-mortar schools. In any case, it is necessary to prepare for all-virtual instruction in the event that many students will have to shift virtually due to an increase in COVID-19 cases, Santelises said.

The hybrid model splits students into two groups. Every student will attend school in-person for two days a week and participate in distance learning on the other days. One day a week would be dedicated to additional cleaning and support in the school buildings, Santelises said.

Students in Pre-K through 6th grade will gradually move towards in-person learning every day, while students in grades 7 through 12 will continue to have a mix of in-person and distance learning.

Some conditions in the hybrid model include 4-6 feet physical distancing and masks for all staff and students. Santelises cited guidance from local health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which states that “evidence suggests that spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space.”

Students will be able to switch between the all-virtual academy and hybrid learning at specific times of the year, such as every quarter or semester.

“As of right now, we have no plans to open schools fully K-12,” Santelises said.

As many as 1,600 people participated in the live virtual town hall, “helping us set a record at city schools,” according to Andre Riley, the director of communications for BCPS. BCPS will continue to have virtual town halls every Thursday at 1 p.m to provide updates on reopening plans.

The Baltimore City school system is currently collecting feedback from surveys, town halls, focus groups and one-on-one virtual interviews for its draft reopening plan. Officials are relying on various guidelines, primarily from MSDE, CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as local health officials in Baltimore City.

City schools plan to present a draft reopening plan to the Board of School Commissioners on July 28. All local school districts must submit a final reopening plan to the Maryland State Department of Education by Aug 14.

A survey was sent out to families on July 1 to gather information on families’ experience with distance learning. The school system is accepting survey responses until Monday, but so far, over 7,000 families have responded.

From the preliminary survey results, 83% of families said that they received needed support from their child’s teachers with distance learning. Eighty-one percent of families believed that their child’s schools communicated clear expectations for distance learning.

However, almost half of the families reported that their child’s emotional well-being was lower during distance learning, and 30% of families felt that their children did not make academic progress during distance learning. Many also highlighted that balancing their jobs and their child’s school work was a challenge during distance learning.

Some proposed health and safety practices include desk shields and dividers for students who may have more difficulty wearing a mask, specifically younger students and special education students.

Santelises also stressed the importance of keeping students in small groups of cohorts to minimize potential transmission.

The district will continue to centrally distribute cleaning supplies to ensure that all Baltimore City school buildings have enough soap and paper towels. Previously, the availability of cleaning supplies varied between individual schools. The school district will also look into buildings that are understaffed and provide additional custodial support to those buildings, Santelises said.

As the hybrid model involves at least some digital learning, participants during the town hall asked about access to the Internet and devices. The school district has purchased 10,000 additional hotspots for internet access, Santelises said.

Participants also asked if there was going to be mandatory COVID-19 testing before students and staff entered school buildings. “We would be dependent on the city for that testing….and we are part of those citywide discussions,” Santelises said.

As for transportation, the school district is looking to implement social distancing on buses, which means reduced capacity, said Lynette Washington, the Baltimore City school system’s chief operations officer. There are still ongoing conversations about MTA access for high school students, as there are resource constraints for additional buses, Washington said.

There were myriad comments on Facebook and Youtube about safety concerns with in-person learning.

“The staff will have a hard time keeping masks on children. They already don’t like it, imagine how they will behave when together,” LC Harrison commented during the Facebook Live presentation.

Another parent, Jen Thomas, asked, “What about ventilation in buildings?”

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Elizabeth Shwe
Shwe covered California state politics during her internship at The Sacramento Bee. She is a 2020 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in political science. At Princeton she was a producer for WPRB 103.3 FM News & Culture section, the station’s only long form podcast-type program. Shwe also wrote for The Daily Princetonian, and tutored with the Petey Greene Program, which offers free tutoring to incarcerated people. Shwe is a Report for America corps member.