Teachers at four Baltimore County schools for disabled children were supposed to report to their classrooms Monday morning.
Their return is being delayed one week while the teachers’ union and the school system negotiate how those teachers can return safely.
Those negotiations are happening at the same time there is a push to reopen more schools across the county.
Desiree Werner is the staff development teacher at Battle Monument in Dundalk, one of the four schools for severely disabled students in the county.
She has a two-year-old son with respiratory issues. Werner wants to continue teaching at Battle Monument virtually, in part, to protect her son’s health.
“If we have to return and there are no other options, I most likely am going to be forced to take a leave,” Werner said.
She added that could be easier said than done for teachers who do not feel safe returning to the classroom.
“It might be unpaid and that might not be an option for people, Werner said.
Cindy Sexton, president of TABCO, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said one of the major sticking points in the negotiations with the administration is giving at least some teachers the option of continuing virtual instruction rather than returning to the classroom.
“We certainly do have people who are just not willing to because of just the nature of COVID,” Sexton said.
Parents will have that virtual-only option for their children when in-person classes resume at the four schools November 16. Teachers and staff do not.
Another issue, according to Sexton, is that administration officials are not clearly stating what COVID numbers would lead to the schools being closed again.
School officials did not return a request for comment.
But a COVID-19 health guideline released by the school system late Friday spells out when they would consider reducing or closing programs. Sexton calls the guideline a starting point.
Sexton said she is fairly confident the union and the school system can reach an agreement on how to safely reopen the four schools, the others of which are Ridge Ruxton, Maiden Choice and White Oak.
“If we can get it down for these four schools, that would make it much easier as we go forward,” Sexton said.
That next step forward may well be kindergarten through second graders.
The guideline released Friday only specifically states when the four schools are returning. The return of all other students is to be determined. That’s despite the fact that at last week’s school board meeting, the board directed the school administration to come up with a plan to have K-2 students come back November 30.
Board member Russ Kuehn questioned why disabled students, many of them medically fragile and unable to tolerate masks, are the first ones reporting back.
Keuhn said, “I am curious as to how Baltimore County, the Baltimore County Public Health Department along with Baltimore County Public Schools thinks that this is where we should start.”
Chief Academic Officer Mary Boswell-McComas told the board the disabled students at the four schools have the greatest need for in-person instruction. These are students who need hands-on help, which is impossible through virtual learning. McComas called it a complex puzzle.
“We take very seriously the lives of our students,” McComas told the board. “We take very seriously the medical needs and the learning needs of these students.”
Werner, the staff development teacher at Battle Monument, questions why the students at the four schools are about to return just as the number of positive COVID-19 cases are creeping up in Maryland.
“Our students need consistency and routine,” Werner said. “So unless this is going to be a sustainable reopening, it’s really not in anyone’s best interest.”
Over the weekend, a timeline for reopening the four schools was sent to parents and staff. The students who return will be in the classroom two days a week, and will continue virtual learning the other three days.