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As COVID Rates Climb, Baltimore City Schools Scale Back Reopening Plans


Baltimore City Public Schools will scale back a planned partial reopening from 44 to 27 schools and open on-site testing at schools as local COVID-19 cases spike, CEO Sonja Santelises announced Tuesday evening. 

“I had epidemiologists telling me back in April, beware of the fall/winter surge. And it is happening,” Santelises said. “It's also why we've started with small groups, because we wanted to make sure that we could move through this.”


The announcement couples a slew of alarming pandemic trends, including the statewide positivity rate surpassing the 5% threshold recommended by the World Health Organization, with Santelises’ emphasis on classroom learning for the system’s most vulnerable students. 

In a news release, the system cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study which found that, when proper preventative steps are in place, COVID transmission is at lower risk of spread in schools than in family or social gatherings.  

The in-person learning opportunities, first announced earlier this fall, are optional and open to students in prekindergarten, kindergarten, special education, as well as those who have missed at least 20% of online classes or are experiencing homelessness. 

The district also invited some sixth and ninth graders — those moving to middle and high schools — as well as students in trade or career technology studies. 

Santelises said the decision to scale back will affect primarily students depending on which school they had been assigned to, rather than by which learning category they fall under.

“We'll continue to prioritize those groups coming back,” she said. “We just will not be doing it at the scale that we originally thought.”

The list of updated schools can be found here. Most schools are due to open Nov. 16; four schools for students with special needs opened yesterday. 

Students in the original 44 schools who do not return as anticipated will be prioritized during later reopenings, Santelises said.

The Baltimore Teachers Union has said unequivocally since the pandemic’s onset that in-person classes should not resume until the health crisis has subsided. 

As school buildings reopen, the system will focus on five preventative strategies recommended by the CDC, including masking wearing, social distancing, frequent hand washing, frequent school cleanings and contact tracing in collaboration with the Baltimore City Department of Health.

The school system has also developed a partnership with the city and Maryland Department of Health to offer testing for staff and students experiencing COVID symptoms at school sites. 

And the district has launched a dashboard to share COVID-19 data specific, similar to Baltimore City’s dashboard. The dashboard will display the number of confirmed cases, potential transmission cases and closures of learning pods or schools.

In the six-weeks since the system opened several in-person learning centers and small group learning opportunities in late September, one positive case among teachers or students working or learning at the sites was reported.

“If things shift even more and we continue to consult and we have to roll back even more, we will do that,” Santelises said. “But it really is about balancing the needs that we're hearing from our families and students with wanting to keep everyone safe.”


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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