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Baltimore Schools Will Remain Online For Start Of Fall Term, While Digital Divide Looms Large

Drew Morris/Flickr

Baltimore City Public School leaders said Monday that they will delay the return to in-person classes until later this fall, saying the system must balance pandemic health measures with the need to get students back into classrooms.


“We were determined that our plan be data-based, both in terms of COVID-19 and the disproportionate impact of distance learning on our most vulnerable students — while avoiding any influence from attempts to politicize this situation,” Sonja Santelises, CEO of the school system, said in a statement.

Santelises said the school system will release an update about the fall term by Oct. 16. As that date approaches, city schools will take frequent temperature checks, both literally and metaphorically: community health indexes, air quality in school buildings, PPE needs and staff feedback will all influence how the rest of the term’s classes will be held.


“We will continue to create options for learning environments that meet students’ needs by allowing them to safely engage in-person with the staff who care so deeply about their success,” she said.


In an email sent ahead of the official announcement to teachers that was obtained by WYPR, school officials said “it is critical that students return to school in person when conditions allow them to meet their developmental and academic needs. We will assess the need to bring in small groups of students, as necessary, during the virtual learning period this fall.”


Santelises will also ask the city school board to delay the opening of the fall term to the Tuesday after Labor Day in order to provide additional staff training in virtual and hybrid learning.  


A major educational concern shared by Santileses and families is the digital divide -- the lack of internet access and devices across communities of color Baltimore. City schools have just one device for every four students. 


“If you can't get online right now, you can't learn and you can't really function as a citizen in this country,” said Zeke Cohen, a Democratic city councilman from southeast Baltimore and a former teacher. 


Cohen introduced a resolution at City Hall Monday calling on Comcast to bolster an existing program, Internet Essentials, that serves low-income families with internet access through the reopening of public schools. Comcast has a franchise agreement with Baltimore.


As it stands now, the Internet Essentials program gives 60 days of free WiFi to participants, who can enroll through December. More than 104,000 residents are enrolled in the program. In the spring, Comcast waived the usual requirement of no past due balance in order to apply to the program and increased its speeds from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps.


Cohen said the new speed is still too slow for households that must frequently use video services for learning and that 60 free days is not enough.


“During a global pandemic where education has moved largely to the internet and where we know school is going to be virtual, at least during the start of the year, it is critically important that our young people have access to high quality internet,” Cohen said. 


Franca Muller Paz, a high school teacher at Baltimore City College and a building representative for the Baltimore Teachers Union, said some of her most diligent students dropped off the radar as classes went online this spring due to a lack of internet access.


“They were always on time. They always submitted their assignments. To see them disappear in this process was really unsettling,” she said. “I just wonder how many students we lost.”


Muller Paz says she is is relieved that the fall term will kick off online: she’s worried about the health of fellow teachers and students. But with online classes, the digital divide remains a problem.


 A recent Abell Foundation report found that 40% of Baltimore households don’t have stable Internet access. That includes half of Black households and 46% of Hispanic households.


“If we don't have the digital connectivity we need, we're accepting that one in every two Black and Latino students are not going to be participating in their education,” Muller Paz said.


Yashira Valenzuela, a rising high school senior at Baltimore City College, was saddened when she learned that at least part of the fall term would be held online: she misses her classmates and teachers. But overall, she said, it’s for the best.


“It’s better that my peers at school and my teachers are at home where nothing can harm them,” Valenzuela said.


But like Muller Paz, Valenzuela is worried for her friends without reliable internet access. 


“For many of my friends, it has been an issue,” she said.  


Muller Paz and Valenzuela have joined Cohen in calling for Comcast to bolster its services. So have officials in the cities of Philadelphia and Detroit. 


“They have made great profits in our cities,” Cohen said. “It’s just important for them as a company, as a corporate partner, to be a partner in the effort to get our kids learning again.”


For nearly a decade, Comcast spokeswoman Kristie Fox said in a statement, there has been no company more committed to bridging the digital divide in Baltimore than Comcast. 


“To confront the COVID-19 epidemic, we proactively offered 60 days of free service to any new customers, waived all back due debt, and opened thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots in outdoor and small business locations across the City – and will continue to do so through the end of the year,” Fox said. 


“However, solving a problem as vast and complex as the digital divide requires collaboration across the City – with the school district, elected officials, nonprofit community partners, and other private-sector companies – so everyone is part of the solution.”


When it comes to Baltimore classrooms, Santelises says it’s likely that more and more families will lose internet access as the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues.


“There were people who had jobs in April or May who are no longer employed, and that's going to impact that access,” Santelises said.


The school district is analyzing internet access rates to understand students’ needs, she said.


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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