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City Schools Reach Out To Public On The BIG Question: How Should City Schools Reopen?

Noah Walker

Baltimore City School administrators haven’t made any decisions yet about how classes will be held in the upcoming school year, but they’ve announced some possibilities.  And they’re asking students, teachers, and families to engage on the topic through surveys, virtual town halls, and focus groups throughout July.

The suggestions offer families a choice: an all virtual academy or a hybrid model, referred to as an A/B schedule. Half the students would attend on Mondays and Tuesdays and the others would come in on Thursdays and Fridays, leaving Wednesdays for cleaning days. Students would be required to wear masks and kept in what are called “cohorts,” in which food and courses like music and art would be brought to the classrooms. In addition, school officials are looking into providing desk shields and dividers. 

In the first of several virtual town halls this month, Dr. Sonja Santelises, Baltimore City Schools CEO, said more than 7,000 families had already filled out the survey that was released early in July.  The survey asked parents not only about what they’d be comfortable with in the fall, but also requested feedback about their children’s school experience during the COVID-19 shutdown last spring. 

Looking at the early results, Santelises said, she already saw trends in family responses.

"Just about half of families report that their child's emotional well-being was lower during distance learning. And 30% shared that their students didn't make academic progress during distance learning."

It’s an “imperfect situation” for the district’s 80,000 students as well as their teachers and families, she said. "Families, not unexpectedly, said balancing jobs and their kids' school work was a significant challenge."

Diamonte Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, which represents 2/3 of the staff, says there's a lot public health experts still don’t know about this deadly virus. And she points to states that opened up too quickly and saw COVID-19 cases climb.

Parents need support from their employers and kids need a safe environment at school. And that's not an "either/or" situation, she says.

"What my members are concerned about are my students and families being put in harm's way at the expense of the American government wanting to boost the economy."

WYPR obtained the results of the city schools' educational staff survey.  It shows that teachers reported that 25% of students never engaged in digital learning during the spring shutdown. 

Brown says that the online curriculum needs more attention and they need to find ways to provide a virtual academy that reaches all students. 

School administrators say they’re purchasing more chromebooks to distribute and 10,000 additional internet hotspots.

But Brown says the entire process needs to be slowed down. State health officials should observe Maryland’s COVID-19 cases as other states see spikes in positive cases and hospitalizations. 

"Let's not build the plane while we're flying it," says Brown. "There's no mandate saying when we need to start school. It's a false sense of urgency."

Brown also objects to school leaders who suggest relaxing the social distancing guidelines from six feet to four feet, even though it’s supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The focus, she says, should be on tightening up virtual learning. 

But there also is the issue of students with special needs. Almost 16% of Baltimore City school students have Individual Education Plans (IEPs), which call for special help.

“My kid has an IEP and needs in-person help,” one parent wrote on the town hall’s message board.  

But like many who weighed in, she says she is scared to send her child into the classroom when so much is unknown.  


Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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