By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO
Concerned residents and teachers of Baltimore City Public Schools surrounded the grounds of City Hall this week to protest the expansion of in-person learning as the coronavirus pandemic rages.
Cars wrapped around the building on the corner of Holliday and Fayette streets, causing a minor traffic jam before moving on to City Schools headquarters, located in the 200 block of North Avenue.
“We want to be in the building but the numbers are still high,” Wavie Gibson III told the AFRO.
“We just don’t feel safe yet.”
Teachers are asking for the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, an upgrade to ventilation systems, and a regular testing program for teachers and students. They are also demanding to know what health metrics are being used to make decisions regarding in-person learning.
Gibson said he worries if air purifiers and social distancing will be enough to keep COVID at bay when compounded with the long-standing problematic conditions at many City Schools.
“Some of the things existed before COVID,” he said, “like [not] having hot water to wash your hands.”
BTU decided to forgo a traditional protest where crowds gather and often chant, opting instead to do a caravan protest. Teachers stayed in their cars and many taped signs to their vehicles or wrote on the windows with erasable markers.
“I give your reopening plan an ‘F,’” read one sign. “We can’t teach if we are dead,” read another.
The day was somewhat of a win for the educators, as City Schools announced, prior to the protest, that they would “delay the launch of the next phase of expanded optional in-person learning in the second semester until the first two weeks of March 2021.”
According to City Schools, kindergarten through second grade will begin March 1, with third, fourth, fifth, and ninth graders beginning March 15.
High school seniors have the option to return beginning April 12, the first day of the last quarter.
Pre-kindergarten scholars, middle school students, and grades high school sophomores and juniors “will be provided in early March, at the latest.”
President of the Baltimore Teachers Union, Diamonte Brown, spoke with the AFRO about her concerns with the expansion of in-person learning.
“We want to make certain that all of our buildings have the proper ventilation upgrades. We want to make certain that all the staff that have to go into buildings -and the staff that are currently in the buildings- are fully vaccinated before bringing any more students or staff members back,” said Brown. “We also want to make certain that there is increased transparency for community members, staff, and students.”
“At this time, the district tells us that they will speak to health experts to make any decision about how they shift to in-person learning, but they have yet to give us any explicit numbers that they use to make those decisions.”
Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, chief executive officer of City Schools, told community members in her Family Town Hall last month that failing grades were a major factor in the decision to expand in- person learning.
“Santelises listed “achievement and attendance levels” as the “driver behind why we’re adding more classrooms now.”
“Our students are not where they should be,” she said. “They are far below where they were this time last year. We know we need a different option.”
Santelises noted a more than 20 percent increase in the number ninth graders with “one of the warning indicators connected with a much more difficult road to high school graduation and to post secondary success overall.”
Brown told the AFRO that City Schools should have had “a plan to support students additionally during virtual learning knowing that more students would probably fail due to the new way of learning.”
In addition to failing grades, Santelises cited simple demand as another cause for expanding in-person learning.
“We’ve heard from a number of families over the past six to seven months. One of the things that is clear is that not every family is ready to return to school and that is fine. There are families that want that virtual option to continue,” she said. “What is also clear is that there are many more families who are saying ‘the virtual option is not working as well for my child.’”
Santelises told participants in the town hall that more than five million dollars has been invested in over 8,300 air purifiers and an upgrading of school air filters. Students and staff are to social distance and wear masks, as they’ve been doing since small groups began meeting over the summer and student learning centers opened in September.
The district will have students in “classroom pods” that do not interact with each other, contact tracing, and temperature screenings.
“We’ve had no cases of transmission at our in-person learning sites and only one case of transmission food and nutrition site,” said Santelises. “A lot of that is due to what we know about implementing strong mitigation protocols.”
“Those are protocols that have been endorsed by our health advisory committee, they match the CDC recommendations and they have been approved and verified by our own Baltimore City Health Department.”
According to the Baltimore City Health Department, the city has had an average of 154 new cases each day in the last week. That equals out to about 25 daily new cases per 100,000 people.
“What we’ve seen is that we’ve developed the systems and protocols to safely mitigate the COVID facts to facilitate a return to schools. We’ve shown we can do it safely,” said Santelises.
The Baltimore City Public Schools COVID Tracker on the City Schools website says there has been one instance of transmission at a meal site and no instances of transmission at an in-person learning site. However, there have been 30 positive cases reported by workers and learners at a meal site and 43 positive cases reported at in-person learning sites since Sept. 28th.
The tracker shows that there have been 18 meal site closures and 49 in-person learning closures “because of a worker or learner that had COVID-like symptoms or a positive COVID test.”