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Teachers Blindsided By Baltimore County Plan To Return To School Buildings

John Lee

All of Baltimore County’s teachers and some of its students will soon be heading back to school buildings.

That announcement Thursday caught the teachers’ union, school board members and the county executive by surprise.

According to a release from the county school system, teachers will return to their buildings October 19, though most of them will continue to teach their students virtually.

Students most at risk of failing at virtual learning will return to their classrooms by November 13. That will include some disabled students, as well as children in preschool, pre-k and kindergarten.

Cindy Sexton, the president of TABCO, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said they received a letter from School Superintendent Darryl Williams about the decision Thursday, the same day the public learned of it. She said county teachers are flabbergasted by the news.

“They are super concerned about the health of those who are immune-compromised or live with people who are immune-compromised,” Sexton said “What are they going to do? How are they going to work?

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said it a statement that Thursday’s announcement provided neither collaborative planning nor clear communication from the county schools.

“My administration has consistently asked for specific updates about plans to reopen our schools,” Olszewski said. “Instead, alongside our educators and parents, I learned the details of BCPS’ reopening announcement earlier today (Thursday).”

Later in an interview, Olszewski said he doesn’t have enough information to know if schools will be safe.

Olszewski asked, “Is there PPE? Is there social distancing? We have no details about what that will look like in October and again in November.”

School board member Lilly Rowe said, "I found out when my phone started ringing."

Rowe then checked her email and found the Thursday news release from the school system.

In a statement, Williams said they have been considering guidance from Gov. Larry Hogan and State School Superintendent Karen Salmon about phasing in small groups of students for in-person instruction.

“We have been particularly concerned about students who might benefit most from in-person instruction – students with disabilities and our youngest learners,” Williams said. “Our new timeline for staff and student reentry focuses on providing in-person services to those two groups of students.”

Sexton said the union is contacting its lawyers as well as the county health department. Sexton said they want to know what the data says about COVID-19 cases in Baltimore County.

Sexton is concerned that some school buildings will not be safe for teachers and staff to return.

“One thing we’re going to want is the ventilation systems checked for every single location and I don’t know if that can happen with BCPS in time.”

“We want to be very careful and very safe in how we reopen,” said Brandon Oland, a school spokesman. “This will give everyone ample time to prepare.”

Sexton said the teachers union, as well as the unions that represent principals and other school employees were not part of the conversation about returning to classrooms, so there are a lot of questions.

“I’m sure every union leader and every leader at BCPS is being inundated at the moment,” Sexton said.

In a recorded phone message sent out to families and staff Thursday night, Williams said that he heard people were caught off guard, but that there are opportunities for feedback.

“This is an initial plan to receive feedback from our stakeholders,” Williams said. “From October 2 through 9, we will survey families of the students who may benefit most from in-person instruction – students with disabilities who attend separate public day schools and self-contained regional programs, as well as students in preschool, PreKindergarten, and Kindergarten.”

Williams said BCPS staff can contact human resources “so that we can ensure that our plan works for both staff and families.”

Also, Superintendent Williams and County Executive Olszewski announced Thursday that 54 academic support centers will be opening to help more than 1,500 students. They will offer child care, as well as virtual learning support.

Olszewski is also allocating up to $7 million to help low income working families pay for childcare.

Details on both the academic centers and the child care subsidies can be found at https://www.bcps.org/news/articles/article12840.html

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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