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Baltimore Teachers And Parents Decry Tentative Reopening Plans Outside BCPS Headquarters

The Baltimore Teachers’ Union staged a die-in protest at school headquarters Wednesday night, demanding that classes remain online through 2020. More than 50 teachers and parents lay on the ground to show they, or someone they know, have conditions such as asthma or diabetes that could make them more susceptible to COVID-19 .

The protest came as city school leaders try to decide what where the rest of the fall semester will be held. School officials announced in July that classes would be held online through at least mid-October. 

“We are here because we love kids and we're here because we love our educators,” said Franca Muller Paz, a teacher at Baltimore City College High School. “We will not put them on the line before it is time.”

Muller Paz, a BTU leader and a Green Party candidate for city council in District 12, said that city teachers are the experts on successful city school operations – and that the district is not ready to reopen. She pointed to a lack of soap and water, air conditioning or thorough ventilation in some schools. 

The union says it will not support physical re-opening of schools until there are near zero incidents of new cases of COVID-19 in Baltimore for at least a month. They also demand the widespread rapid response testing for school staff, students and families, as well as dedicated schools contact tracing. 

Once schools are physically re-opened, the union expects that educators and students who self-identify as at-risk be given the option to teach or learn remotely, that adequate medical-grade PPE, full-time nursing and cleaning staff be available at every school and community-based decision-making power regarding social distancing policies, curriculum and grading. 

Patrice Pilgrim, a teacher and a mom with two kids attending city schools, said teachers have not yet seen a realistic and thorough reopening plan.

“I have a colleague who has a class size digitally right now of almost 40 students,” Pilgrim said. “If you can't regulate class size in our virtual environment, how the hell is that supposed to happen in person?”

The district had a small amount of vulnerable students attend in-person summer school this year. When kids arrived, they entered buildings six feet apart, while officials took other protective actions such as temperature checks. BTU reps said that a similar procedure would take more than an hour for a full school to complete.  

Meg Gibson, a teacher at Belmont Elementary School, carried a sign with a drawing of a caged, singing canary that read “Open schools only when safe. I don’t want to be a canary in a coal mine.”

Gibson misses her students, but said the tactile and social nature of early learning would make it difficult to keep a classroom full of young kids away from each other and herself.

“Children at that age need to be around each other, that goes without saying, and I want to be back there with them,” she said, but believing that can be done safely is “just magical thinking.”

A fraction of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 occurred in children. According to the CDC, Black and brown children were disproportionately affected. More than 90% of BCPS students are Black or brown; over half come from low income families.

That concerns Angie Winder, a member of the Parents Community Advisory Board, which advises schools CEO Sonja Santelises. Winder has a kindergartener at Yorkwood Elementary. 

“There’s not a price tag you can put on our babies,” Winder said. “Ten million dollars is nothing when you have to bury a child, you know. And then you’d say: ‘oops.’ I don’t want to say ‘oops.’”

Towards the end of the night, high school chemistry and physics teacher Joel Pally listed conditions that raise the threat of covid-19, such as asthma and diabetes, and asked protestors to lay down when they heard a condition that affected them or someone they know.

By the end of his speech, nearly every attendee laid on the ground, district headquarters spanning above them.


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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