(Stock Photo)

By Alexis TaylorSpecial to the AFRO

Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) did indeed return to “normal” this week, as the first day of classes ended in mid-day dismissals for hundreds of students due to a lack of air conditioning.

Many students returned for in-person learning for the first time in 18 months since the threat of COVID-19 forced what was supposed to be a two-week quarantine. 

The deja vu and frustration was palpable as parents scrambled to deal with first day challenges and inequities, now compounded by the threat of a mutating coronavirus.

“My concern is that my daughter doesn’t have transportation and she has always had it,” said Mary Walker, a mother of two. “They are talking about a bus shortage. She is supposed to have transportation. I can’t take her to school.”

Walker spent the first day of school on the phone with BCPS headquarters, located on North Avenue, and her child’s school trying to figure out the transportation she said has been in place for three years. 

Walker is the parent of an upper elementary student at Hilton Elementary with an individualized education plan (IEP), a legal document that ensures support for special needs scholars.

“I called North Avenue but they were no help. They told me to contact the school she goes to and I did—still no help. The IEP chair never got back to me.”

Sarah Chilton publicly threatened legal action after transportation mishaps excluded her son on the first day of school.

“I still have not received a call with transportation information,” Chilton replied to the back-to-school message from BCPS CEO, Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises. “When I called I was told it will be a month to get most kids’ transportation issues resolved and they will miss school unless the parent can take them and pick them up,” 

“This is illegal for any students with IEP that requires transportation, like my son.”

Transportation wasn’t the only issue facing parents of special needs students. Though public health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend face masks for students, Walker says some pandemic protocols are not realistic for her daughter.

“I know that they are supposed to, but she is not able to wear a mask due to sensory issues,” said Walker. “She needs to be at school in-person. Last school year she was virtual and she regressed tremendously. I would like the school to accommodate my daughter and if they can’t then I want an appropriate placement for her.” 

Though Baltimoreans at large are not protesting face masks like parents and officials in South Carolina, Ohio and other states, the safety precaution becomes burdensome when combined with stifling conditions inside local school buildings. 

The first and second day of the 2021-2022 school year ended exactly like the first and second day of the 2019-2020 school year prior to the pandemic. More than 30 schools without fully functioning air conditioners were forced to close as temperatures broke into the 90s. 

Currently, each time temperatures go above 85 degrees inside the classroom there are nine schools with systems under repair that have to close alongside another 21 buildings with no system at all.

Parents lit into the district via social media as BCPS accounts posted back to school messages and closure announcements. 

“The city and state should be embarrassed by this stupidity,” said Gerard Talley.

“Why do they still have buildings without AC in 2021?” Kristin McGruder asked BCPS representatives. “Could they not work on that while schools were closed due to COVID? This sounds ridiculous!”

“Mask with no AC? You try it,” commented Regina Harrison. 

BCPS responded to requests for comment with a statement. 

“We understand the concerns and frustrations of families. The district makes (sic) the health and safety of the school community seriously and this issue remains a priority,” said the BCPS statement. “When Dr. Santelises became CEO there were 76 schools without air conditioning. City Schools reduced the number of schools without air conditioning to 21.” 

“In accordance with our Health and Safety Procedures, classrooms have air purifiers to help mitigate infectious aerosol transmission.” 

In addition to hot classrooms and transportation, parents and concerned citizens sounded off about crowded classrooms, missing nurses and building access.

“My child has 31 students in her class- elbow to elbow, desk to desk – no plastic, no nothing to keep them safe,” reported Niecy Jackson with a heartbreaking emoji.

Lori Starlings mentioned that her school couldn’t procure a school nurse for the first day, meaning her “son couldn’t go because he relies on medication.”

The scene was even worse for parents of preschool and kindergarten students who typically find themselves swimming in emotions on the first day of school. This year, COVID precautions meant no visitors.

“I am supposed to send my special needs kindergartener into school alone?” Le Li asked district officials on their Facebook page. “If it’s a safety issue schools should be closed! He can’t tell you where he is going or who his teacher is.”

Shantelle Fuller , a mother of four, offered to show her vaccination card and COVID test results in efforts to walk into the school building with her children. 

“Parents should be able to escort their children with restrictions,” she said. “Ask if they have been vaccinated. Give the COVID-19 test and temperature check if needed- but don’t say we can’t come in all together.

Fuller, a D.C. native, just moved to Baltimore with her family and said she was disappointed in general with BCPS. 

“This was definitely a traumatic experience for my children going into unfamiliar territory knowing no one,” the D.C. native commented. “We have had a year off globally to ensure that our children, staff, and parents could try to transition as smoothly as possible. 

“I am horrified.”

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Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer