The first students are returning to Baltimore County school buildings next month. They are some of the school system’s most severely disabled children and go to one of four special schools.
This comes as there is a debate over whether all Baltimore County Schools should reopen.
Virtual learning is going well for many of the 63 disabled students at Battle Monument School in Dundalk, according to Principal Jerry Easterly.
“There aren’t as many distractions as when you are in a classroom and you’ve got other people and things going on,” Easterly said.
But all of Easterly’s students are on Individualized Education Plans, IEPs. Those plans spell out what the school system is legally required to do to ensure a disabled student is receiving an appropriate education.
The students are supposed to receive services that are simply impossible to get through virtual learning. These are students who need up close, hands on help. They get services like physical therapy. They are learning how to feed themselves. They need help going to the bathroom.
Parents will have the option to send their children back to the schools beginning November 16, or continue virtual learning.
At a recent rally, TABCO, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, demanded that the four schools remain closed. Anna Melton, a special education teacher at Ridge Ruxton School in Towson, said her students will not be safe because they will not be able to follow the rules to protect themselves from COVID-19.
“Such as the proper use of facial masks, social distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette,” Melton said.
Kelly Yalfani, who also is a teacher at Ridge Ruxton, said, “We love our students. We miss our students. We know virtual learning is not the best thing. But what’s better, virtual learning or dying? Because that’s the choice we’re given.”
“Students at the special schools die from their medical complications every year, without COVID,” Yalfani continued.
George Roberts, the community superintendent who oversees the four schools, which also include Maiden Choice and White Oak, said they are taking steps to make the schools safer. He said there is enough PPE, like masks, shields and gloves, to protect the staff through June.
Roberts said staff will use see-through masks.
“Because if we have a non-transparent cover over our nose and our mouth, that may frighten some of the children,” Roberts said. “We won’t be able to communicate as effectively with them.”
Principal Easterly said some of his teachers are already wearing masks, even though they are still teaching virtually, so the students can get used to them.
Also, Roberts said the schools will be cleaned throughout the day.
“Overnight, what we are looking at is our staff to continue to clean and do a deep clean every single night,” Roberts said.
They also are considering using the cohort model, putting students and staff in small groups that stay together, according to Roberts. That’s made easier because these schools generally have fewer than 100 students.
Baltimore County Health Officer Doctor Gregory Branch said the health department is advising the school system about how to reopen the schools but is not checking out individual buildings. That’s up to the school system. He said that would change if there is a major COVID outbreak.
“I would then have my team go in to sort of figure out what’s going on,” Dr. Branch said. “But no, we look at their plan and based on what they’re documenting we give them recommendations.”
Principal Easterly at Battle Monument said the county health department currently is reviewing the reopening plan for the four schools.
Easterly said, “Many of the components in the plan for the four special schools will be also in a comprehensive plan for all of the other schools.”
On Wednesday, the group Re-Open Baltimore County Schools held a rally in Towson calling for schools to reopen county wide. Organizer Mary Taylor said the four schools for the disabled are a good example.
“They are proving that there is a positive plan,” Taylor said. “You can put a plan together to put our kids back into school safely.”
But Roberts, the community superintendent, said this is not a test run for the other schools. He said these are the students who most need face-to-face instruction.
Roberts said the school administration continues working on a detailed plan on how schools will reopen safely countywide. He could not say when that plan will be released.
Roberts said the plan will need to be aligned with “the most current science and advice and counsel from our local county health officials.”