Over the passionate objections of many teachers, parents, and students, Baltimore City Schools announced on Oct. 14 that they are pressing ahead with a plan to increase in-person instruction for high need students starting in November. This in-person instruction would be held at 25 of the district’s 161 schools. Students can return on a voluntary basis, but teachers will be required to return to the classroom.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonte Brown criticized the move, arguing educators should not be forced to risk their own health and the health of their communities by returning to school before it is safe. 

You are literally exposing them to a pandemic, and in this way ‘equity’ could become an instrument for exacerbating chronic racial health disparities.

School Board Commissioner Dr. Durryle Brooks

“I’m concerned that safety protocols and measures have yet to be fully fleshed out, and the unfinished plans are currently being poorly implemented. In order to reopen safely, the board needs to actually negotiate with the union, the reopening plans need to be complete, the district needs to commit to putting structures and processes in place to ensure that safety protocols are being followed,” Brown told The Real News. “The majority of the people that I’ve spoken to that are in school buildings and worksites report lack of PPE [personal protective equipment] or safety protocols regularly being breached.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over 210,000 lives and highlighted systemic inequalities that existed long before COVID-19. Brown’s concerns about reopening are not unique and reflect concerns of public school teachers across the country about a lack of PPE, testing, adequate soap and hand sanitizer, and inadequate protocols outlining how to respond if COVID-19 cases are detected. 

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said 50% of recently surveyed parents say they are not ready to return their children to the classroom, but 25% said they are ready to return. Santelises also said that ensuring equity requires getting at-risk students—including young students, students with disabilities, English language learners, and students who were present less than 20 percent of the time in virtual classrooms—back into the classroom (Some parents have criticised the survey, which was conducted via text message).

“The majority of our students will remain in virtual, and all families will continue to have a virtual option, we’re not saying everybody must return in-person,” Santelises said on a call with reporters. “But we do know that for a number of our young people, their learning experience in the virtual space just is not meeting their needs.”

Additional funding will be made available to ensure the reopenings happen safely, Santelises explained: “We are able to provide staff with the PPE that they need, we started in the late summer changing all the air filters.”

Santelises added that the district will closely monitor changes in infection rates in close collaboration with the Baltimore City Health Department, Johns Hopkins University, and other local medical and educational institutions.

School Board Commissioner Dr. Durryle Brooks told The Real News he’s concerned that returning the most vulnerable students to the classroom could actually endanger them: “You are literally exposing them to a pandemic, and in this way ‘equity’ could become an instrument for exacerbating chronic racial health disparities.”

Hampstead Hill Academy, a public charter school in southeast Baltimore that’s consistently ranked as one of the city’s top achieving schools, will be among the schools reopening at a limited capacity. Principal Matt Hornbeck says his teachers say they are ready to return to the classroom, and strict safety protocols are in place to mitigate the risk.

“[Virtual learning] is really not working for a large number of very high risk kids. The doctors and scientists are saying it is possible, and those who can do it should do it,” Hornbeck said.

No students or faculty tested positive this summer after 50 students attended in-person summer school at Hampstead Hill Academy.

Students say virtual learning is not an effective way for them to learn. 17-year-old Bard High School senior Lynnea Davis told The Real News she’s very unhappy with virtual learning: “It’s really bad for me, I prefer to be in class. I’m more of a visual learner, I need to be able to get help from a teacher, rather than sitting here on half a computer, and try to work by myself,” she said.

Yet Davis said because she has preexisting conditions and suffers from seizures, she does not feel safe returning to school during the pandemic, even with a hybrid learning model. “I still wouldn’t feel comfortable coming back,” she said.

The debate about reopening comes as the US is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases, and 20 states have hit new highs for seven day infection rates. Transmission rates have dropped from the height of the pandemic, but are still greater than the standards established by the World Health Organization for safe reopenings.

Districts are facing increasing pressure to reopen from President Donald Trump and local leaders like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and critics who say virtual learning hurts at-risk students and students who don’t have stable home environments.

Proponents of reopening cite CDC data that shows transmission rates and health risks are lower for school age students. But critics note no agency is tracking COVID-19 cases in the country’s schools, so there’s no way to track outbreaks at US schools as they reopen. 

“We don’t have any good strategies to systematically collect the experience across a swath of the US to actually be able to study the different approaches that have and, in some cases, not worked so well,” Dr. Susan Coffin, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recently told CNN.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported that the childhood infection rate has surged to 10% as students began to return to school in September. Meanwhile, the CDC found that severe incidents of COVID-19 in young people remain relatively rare, but are correlated with preexisting conditions. One in five students in Baltimore have asthma. 

Schools in European countries like the UK, Spain, France, and Italy have been cited as examples of what safe reopenings could look like and experienced no reported outbreaks in September, but are now becoming COVID-19 hotspots experiencing thousands of new cases in the classroom, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

Baltimore Schools lists a positivity rate lower than than 5% and a 14 day drop in new cases as prerequisites for reopening, according to the district’s draft reopening plan released Aug. 14. Despite a spike in cases statewide, Maryland’s official positivity rate is 3.09%. However, Johns Hopkins, an international leader in the response to the pandemic, lists Maryland’s rate at 7.56%, and trending upwards since Gov. Larry Hogan eased restrictions for indoor gatherings on Oct. 1. 

Santelises told The Real News that experts at Johns Hopkins told her it was safe to rely on the state’s positivity numbers: “Their recommendation to us was that we use the state’s [numbers].”

There is wide dissatisfaction with virtual learning, which is experienced very differently by private schools and wealthy districts who had money to provide tablets and laptops to students, or whose parents could afford high speed internet. In disinvested cities like Baltimore, advocates worked together to secure additional funding, and helped raise millions of dollars to provide access to virtual learning for some of the 9 in 10 students who live in poverty. 

Melissa Schober, who presented testimony at a Oct. 13 school board meeting on behalf of the Parent and Community Advisory Board (PCAB), which advises the Baltimore City Schools CEO and school board, said families wanted to ensure the safety of their children and school communities. Some families want their children to return to the classroom, but want assurances safety protocols will be in place. Parents also said they wanted to be consulted about the plan to reopen as it developed, and said they felt locked out of the decision-making process. 

“Families are aware that Black and Brown children are more likely to be hospitalized with COVID while also grappling with the reality that Black and Latinx adults are much less likely to be able to work from home than white workers,” Schober said

In her testimony, Schober noted that studies show at least 42% of school staff nationwide have preexisting conditions which make them more susceptible to COVID-19. Schober has also expressed concerns about a shortage of 60 special education teachers as of Feb. 2020 she learned of via a Freedom of Information Request.

“I am concerned that even prior to COVID, city schools had a special education staffing shortage. When we reopen to special education students, some of those special educators will be asked to be in close proximity to children who need assistance with feeding, dressing, and toileting. I am concerned about protecting these teachers and students well during COVID, knowing that they may already be overburdened,”  Schober said. 

On Sept. 30, teachers and parents rallied outside of City Schools headquarters in opposition to reopening—at least until districts provided the necessary resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as rapid testing; personal protective equipment for educators, staff, and students; repairs to HVAC systems to improve ventilation; and plexiglass windows in every classroom.

“I’m not going to stand here and think about who are the two or three educators in my building who are going to die because we decided to open when we weren’t ready,” said Franca Muller Paz, a teacher and union building representative for Baltimore’s City College High School, at the Sept. 30 rally.

Experts say proper ventilation can help reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19. But the majority of school buildings in Baltimore, particularly their aging HVAC systems, are in such bad condition that students were forced to miss significant amounts of instruction time even before the pandemic, a Johns Hopkins study found earlier this year. “Problems with heat and cooling accounted for lost school time of more than 1.2 million hours, equivalent to more than 179,000 days, over the last 5 years, representing about 80% of the time missed,” the report said. 

Facing increased costs for remote learning, and a budget shortfall, the district laid off 450 employees. The revised $2.2 trillion dollar HEROES Act, passed by House Democrats on Oct. 1, includes $2.6 billion dollars in K-12 aid for the state of Maryland. 

Parents and teachers say additional investments are needed for virtual learning to be sustainable. 

“Ensure all students have a laptop. Ensure all students have internet access. Ensure all students and parents have ongoing, regular training and collaborative sessions on navigating virtual learning,” Brown said.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.