The reality of a fast-moving virus in a pandemic is that biology has the final say. COVID-19 doesn’t care about party agendas or political messaging or what anyone’s staffing needs are. The omicron variant, a highly infectious mutation of the COVID-19 virus, has run roughshod all over the United States, and Maryland is no exception.
According to the state’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard, as of this morning, there are 800,743 confirmed cases of people infected with the COVID-19 virus. There are 3,208 people currently hospitalized. There are 11,868 people dead from COVID-19, including four children under the age of 9, and ten children and young adults aged 10-19. In Baltimore, there are 90,715 known cases of this virus.
Still, in the last few weeks, Democrats and school officials in deeply blue cities like Baltimore have been in a standoff with teachers’ unions and parents about what omicron could mean for school reopenings and students’ health.
Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott, like mayors in New York City and Chicago, said that children have asked him to return to school. At a press conference the day before Baltimore City schools were set to reopen, he lectured citizens about their personal responsibility to stop the spread of the disease.
“I also want to remind everyone that we still have had continuously, an indoor mask mandate in Baltimore City. I do not want to see anyone thinking it does not apply to them. Because it does, it applies to everyone,” Scott said. “As your mayor in Baltimore, I will continue to follow the science and enact appropriate measures to slow the spread of this new variant.”
Scott, along with members of the City Council, attended a White House holiday celebration the weekend before Christmas, as COVID-19 infections began to rise.
In the week leading up to Christmas, as omicron surged, people here in Baltimore and also around the country scrambled to get their hands on rapid tests so that they could proceed—as President Joe Biden had advised them to—with their holiday plans.
“I know some Americans are wondering if you can safely celebrate the holidays with your family and friends,” Biden said in White House remarks given on Dec. 21. “The answer is yes, you can, if you and those you celebrate with are vaccinated, particularly if you’ve gotten your booster shot.”
On Dec. 22, the Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonté Brown wrote a letter to Baltimore City Schools leaders pushing for an emergency response and demanding a switch to virtual learning.
“There is much we do not yet know, but what is clear is that transmissions are at record levels and vaccination does not eliminate infection. It is prudent and necessary for City Schools to consider all possibilities,” Brown wrote. “A school-by-school, wait-and-see approach creates crises in schools and confusion across the district. We need district-wide action now.”
Over the holiday break for Baltimore City students, as COVID infections approached 20%—at the time a troubling rate, and even more worrying now as it approaches 30%—teachers began to express worry among themselves, with their union, and on social media. Teachers who were infected with COVID-19 before the winter break shared their stories of dealing with the illness on social media.
Baltimore City teacher Jocelyn Providence shared the devastating story of her infection, her fellow City Schools teacher and husband Joshua Ober’s infection, and the infection of their six-month-old child.
In response to the many stories like Providence’s, teachers demanded some sense of clarity on what was going to happen—whether or not they were going to have to continue to teach in-person, virtually, or both.
Meanwhile, Baltimore City Hall remains closed to the public—and the people pushing back against switching to remote classes, citing disruptions to student learning, haven’t raised similar concerns over the pending permanent closure of four Baltimore City schools at the end of this year. As the Johns Hopkins University graduate workers union tweeted, “It’s amazing to think that our public health experts pushed for BCPS to continue in-person learning in the midst of this emergency outbreak. Which is such an emergency that Hopkins hospitals are overloaded, leaving the university to ask non-medical faculty/staff/students for help.”
City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises made the decision to push the reopening back to accommodate two days of voluntary testing. She also used Monday, Jan. 2, to hold a press conference to both reassure parents and play her role in the united front among local powers that be against virtual learning.
At the virtual event, Santelises, along with State Senate President Bill Ferguson and State Delegates Cory McCray, Antonio Hayes, and Stephanie Smith, were lockstep in their messaging, which echoed the refrains coming from the White House, newly elected New York Mayor Eric Adams, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot: schools must stay open.
Ferguson, a former teacher, said that when the pandemic began two years ago, it was extremely disruptive to students.
“Two years ago, though, we did not have vaccines to protect against COVID-19. We didn’t have rapid and pool testing to detect asymptomatic cases,” Ferguson said, omitting the fact that many have already been infected, and that even receiving two vaccinations and a booster shot does not prevent infection and spread.
Ferguson continued: “We [also] didn’t have newly approved treatments that drastically cut the severity of the illness.”
The comment neglects the fact that there is still much we don’t know about this virus and what damage it could do five, ten, or more years into the future. Even now, some people with “mild” cases have reported lingering effects like migraines and fatigue.
Santelises’ own comments also seemed to ignore omicron moving swiftly through the community: “The data shows that the best mitigation strategy to address this new COVID strain is to ensure our staff and students have been fully vaccinated and boosted since those actions significantly reduce the risk of serious illness,” she said.
Santelises provided an answer to a different question than the one teachers and parents asked. They want to prevent spread to their communities right now, and vaccination and boosters do not do that.
Battleground Baltimore submitted questions to Baltimore City Schools the day after the press event asking what, if anything, the city was doing to prepare for the possible reality of students and teachers with long term illness. Their response is that they simply have not begun to prepare.
“Prevention is the best way to protect against the effects of COVID-19, including vaccinations, booster shots, and regular testing,” they said. “City Schools provides testing and coordinates with community partners on vaccination and booster clinics for students and staff members.”
That, by the way, is an answer to a question that we did not ask.
Baltimore City Schools also had no plans to get better quality masks.
“Currently, we have no plans to purchase N95 masks,” a City Schools spokesperson said in response to questions sent by the Real News on Tuesday, Jan. 4. “At the start of the 2021-22 school year, City Schools provided high-quality masks to staff and students that comply with health guidelines … In addition, City Schools continues to ensure disposable surgical masks are on-site and available at our schools for students or staff who forget their masks.”
Battleground Baltimore’s questions and the schools’ answers were published in full on the City Schools website.
On Wednesday, Jan. 5, the day before schools were due to reopen, Mayor Scott offered a bit of harm reduction in the form of 80,000 N95 masks for city schools. Medical experts have said that N95s, which offer a tighter seal over the face, are a better means of protection against the omicron variant.
There are around 78,000 students and almost 9,000 teachers in Baltimore City Schools, so those December provisions would supply each student with one mask for the year.
Later in the day, the Baltimore Teachers Union, along with City Council Vice President Sharon Middleton, other members of city council, and local organizations like CASA, No Boundaries Youth Organizers, and Organizing Black, held a virtual press event where they announced a drive for more N95 masks.
At the event, City Councilperson Zeke Cohen, a former teacher, announced that he had recently tested positive for COVID-19.
“Every child I know wants to learn,” Cohen said. “Everyone wants our kids back in school. People are justifiably concerned for their health, and for the health of their families and all of our families. Baltimore has some of the oldest buildings in the state of Maryland… Many of our kids ride the bus. We have multigenerational families living together in the same home. People have a right to feel scared, and we have an obligation to show up for them. I am frankly sick and tired of the casual disrespect aimed at educators.”
The Baltimore Teachers Union and the Parent Community Advisory Board have called on City Schools to require a negative test for all students and staff before the resumption of classes.
So far, the school system has ignored these calls. Students and staff had two days of testing, on Tuesday and Wednesday. The results of these tests will be known in the coming days.
Meanwhile, stories this week from Baltimore City teachers who are in the classroom, and from parents whose children are in those same classrooms, are chaotic. There have been outbreaks at a few schools. In some areas, parents are saying their schools do not currently have health suite staff due to infections; absences are growing, with class attendance in the single digits; and as teachers have known since 2020, requiring students to wear a mask does not mean they are going to wear that mask all of the time—or much of the time—and they all remove them during lunch. Also, the COVID dashboard is slow to update, and many teachers have noted that they haven’t seen their infections entered into the database even days after their positive tests.
Kenniah Woodson, an eleventh grade student in Baltimore City Schools, is one of many students who does not like the return to the classroom amid the surge of infections.
“I feel as though it isn’t safe to go back to school and that’s why COVID cases are increasing even more for children—and since a lot of children don’t want to mess up their attendance, it makes it worse,” Woodson told Battleground Baltimore. “Many students—parents have kept, allowed, or even forced their children to stay home to try and stop the virus from spreading. Altogether, I think that it shouldn’t be mandatory to go back to school.”