The Return to School Roadmap (RTSR) is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, under the umbrella of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP), that allocates over $130 billion to K-12 to support re-opening efforts.

By Nadine Matthews
Special to the AFRO

Although many expected COVID (or the likelihood of contracting the virus) to be behind us and life back to normal by now, but things seemed to have worsened. Many Americans are vaccinated, and some continue to wear masks regularly, while others remain unvaccinated and unmasked, making the return to crowded school buses and classrooms a somewhat perilous prospect for some.

As of now, Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) will require universal masking for students, staff and visitors in schools for the fall of the 2021-2022 school year. The current federal order for masks to be worn on school buses will continue. BCPS is also offering a virtual learning alternative. In addition to these elements, the federal government is making additional efforts to further ensure physical and emotional safety as students head back to school. 

To reassure parents, Christian Rhodes, chief of staff of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, recently held a call with the press to highlight steps being taken to ensure safety of students, faculty and staff. It was also meant to reassure the community of the Biden administration’s commitment to advancing equity in the return to school and make known the resources available to schools across the country as many embark on the new academic year. Camden City Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs was also on the call.

Rhodes served as chief of staff of Prince George’s County Public Schools until February. On the call, he recounted standing in his office in March of 2020 when they received the governor’s statement that schools would be closing. “We were scrambling as districts,” he recalled, “to figure out what to do. There was no vaccine, there was no testing.”

Rhodes discussed the Return to School Roadmap (RTSR), an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, under the umbrella of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP). It allocates over $130 billion to K-12 to support re-opening efforts. The funds are already helping to provide access to vaccination and summer learning opportunities. “We owe it to our students who are yearning for the opportunity to be students again,” Rhodes stated.

Funding will be prioritized according to schools deemed to need it most, including those in which 50% or fewer students received in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RTSR, which launched in Baltimore in early August, has three priorities. “One is the health and safety of students, staff and families,” Rhodes explained. “The second is really around the social, emotional and mental health needs of students. The last is really accelerating academic achievement.”

He said, “What’s happening at the local, state and federal levels is critically important for parents.” He pointed out that a significant portion of the funding schools received from the American Rescue Plan went for on- site COVID testing and vaccination clinics in schools, including Baltimore’s schools. “We’re trying our hardest, in coordination with other administration officials, to provide state education agencies (SEAs) the funding they need.”

Superintendent McCombs spoke at length about the pandemic and the ways it impacted her district and others, including its psychological effects. “‘Students just miss being able to interact with their friends and have fun,” On a more serious note she pointed out that for some students from dysfunctional homes. “I think about students having not had that safe space due to the pandemic.” McCombs suggested the shutdown may have increased or intensified their traumas. To mitigate the impact, “guidance counselors have been, since day one of the pandemic, calling in checking in on our families. We already had identified those students who were most at risk.”

The press call was part of an overall campaign to carry the message to communities on a more local and personal level resulting in greater reassurance about the steps being taken to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Rhodes cited cultural factors he believed were specific to communities of color. “I know we watch the news, read the news, watch the latest press conferences to tell us what’s happening, but in communities across the country, particularly communities of color, the trusted voice is that superintendent, that teacher, that principal, that pastor.”

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