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Anticipating Spread, City Schools To Pause In-Person Learning After Thanksgiving

Phil Roeder/Flickr

Baltimore City Public School officials announced Thursday a plan to pause in-person learning and meal site operations during the week after Thanksgiving, anticipating potential COVID-19 spread from in-person holiday gatherings.

The announcement came the same morning that the Maryland Department of Health reported the state’s largest-ever number of daily new cases of the disease —  2,910 total — since the pandemic first hit. Hospitalizations throughout Maryland are at their highest level since May.

All students will attend virtual classes Monday, Nov. 30 through Friday, Dec. 4. Schools are slated to re-open Monday, Dec. 7.

“This step is safe, responsible, and prudent given the circumstances regarding COVID-19 and gatherings that may occur during Thanksgiving weekend,” a BCPS news release said. “Caution is required, and this brief pause in in-person learning reflects the recommendations of health officials.”

Joe Kane, chair of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, which advises Schools CEO Sonja Santelies, called the decision a positive step in the direction of “communicating with families and really letting the data dictate our decision making.”

“But on the other hand,” he said, “it’s in line with what families had been saying all along: that it's not safe right now to be in schools for in-person learning.”

The system should spend the next few weeks focusing on consistency, he said.

“Make no mistake, there are families and students who desperately need in-person support,” Kane said. “But what we don't need is just to go and pretend that the house isn’t on fire.

The Centers for Disease Control’s latest core indicators and thresholds for COVID spread at schools say there is moderate risk for transmission in city schools, given Baltimore’s current 7-day average test positivity rate of 6.3% and current 7-day average of 37.8 new cases per 100,000 people.

The CDC’s third core indicator measures how well a school system can follow five key COVID mitigation strategies: the consistent and correct use of masks, social distancing to the
largest extent possible, hand washing hygiene, cleaning and disinfection and contact tracing in collaboration with local health departments.

Santelises has argued that the system can properly follow these strategies, and maintained since the summer that opening classrooms to students struggling with remote learning outweighs the associated risk of community spread. The system has operated small, in-person learning groups since the summer, and reported only one COVID-19 case.

“We know that there are families who want that return, but we do have to balance it with making sure that we're being conservative,” she said last week. “We are moving slow and steady, but still making that progress.”

The system, which is advised by a team of healthcare experts including city Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, is prepared to continue to scale back if necessary, she said.

The Baltimore Teachers Union has vehemently opposed in-person instruction since the pandemic began, saying the system, which has struggled to supply enough soap to some schools before the pandemic began, cannot be trusted to follow the CDC’s five mitigation strategies correctly and consistently.

“District leaders continue to say that our schools are safe, that precautions have been taken,” BTU president Diamonté Brown said during a news conference last week. “Yet the school system is making parents who send their children back to school to sign a liability waiver.”

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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