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Baltimore Schools Will Bring Most Vulnerable Students Back Into Classroom, Starting November


  Baltimore City schools will bring some of its most vulnerable students back into the classroom next month, the district announced Wednesday.

Students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, special education, English learners and those experiencing homelessness, as well as those who have missed at least 20% of online classes, will be able to receive in-person schooling in the district’s second quarter, which starts Nov. 12.

“What we have remained committed to doing is having a steady learning that is careful, that takes into account the primacy of health and recognizes that our community is not monolithic,” City Schools CEO Sonya Santelises said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

The district will also ask sixth and ninth grade students, who are transitioning to middle school and high school, respectively, if they would like to return to the classroom. Students in career technology classes, such as studying a trade, will also have the option.

Some, but not all, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers as well as teachers of students with special needs will be required to return to school buildings. The district will inform these teachers if they are being asked to return this week; those with medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19 and childcare concerns may be eligible for accommodations or leave. 

Eligible students will have the choice to return to classrooms or continue remote learning. The majority of the district’s 80,000 students will continue with fully remote learning through the rest of the fall semester.

The in-person classes will take place at up to 25 schools, which have not yet been publicly announced. There are 168 schools in the system.

Santelises said the district may not be able to provide in-person classes for all eligible students and is still wrestling with where exactly eligible students will be placed. Some may attend classes that take place in schools they weren’t attending before, she said. 

“It is imperfect, without a doubt,” the district head said. 

Students, teachers, parents and district leadership agree that education during a pandemic is an impossibly tough situation, and that classes that must account for both the educational and social needs of students and COVID-19 spread concerns.

The district says a quarter of parents surveyed want their children to return to their classrooms. Half said they wanted their children at home through the rest of the fall term, while another quarter said they needed more information before they could make a decision.

A summer survey of school staff found that 72% preferred online instruction, a quarter preferred hybrid learning and 3% preferred in-person classes.

“If staff is overwhelmingly against it and the parents are against it, why are we pushing forward with it?” asked Corey Gaber, a middle school teacher who serves on the board of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

The partial reopening plan was met with criticism from the BTU, which stresses that the most basic sanitation needs — soap, toilet paper — were not met in schools before the pandemic hit.  

The district consulted an advisory committee of experts from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and Morgan State University while developing its reopening plan, and Santelises said that she is committed to being transparent should any outbreaks occur.

She has also argued the district must fulfill its responsibility of meeting the needs of all students, especially its most vulnerable. 

Before the crisis even began, Santelises said, summer learning loss has a persistent impact on vulnerable students, and the compounded impact of missed classes and chronic absence that has grown under virtual learning affect future quality of life indicators for students.

“We cannot add to the number of students who cannot read by the third grade. We cannot add to the number of students who are not graduating from city schools not prepared to earn a living wage,” she said at Tuesday night school board meeting. “We must disrupt this cycle.”

Since the pandemic began, the union has said that educators want to return to classrooms more than anyone, but only when an effective vaccine is readily available or when the pandemic subsides.

“The difference is a potential slight gain in academic achievement over the death of our loved ones,” Gaber said. “Every argument we're making is on ours, our students and their families’ safeties.” 

Reopening may also inadvertently exacerbate racial health disparities by bringing vulnerable students into classrooms where they are at more risk for exposure to the virus than they are at home, he said.

“We have other ways of reaching people besides shoving people back into unsafe buildings,” Gaber said, such as hiring social workers or tutors to visit vulnerable students in their homes or at education centers.

The district will continue to monitor key indicators such as positivity rates and spread, and will adjust as needed, Santeslises said.

“We have to meet our essential obligations to educate and meet the needs of all our students, including the ones we know we are not reaching,” 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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