Outside Baltimore school system headquarters last night, the teachers union and some parents were protesting, warning against re-opening school buildings with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging.
But at the virtual school board meeting underway at that same moment, district officials were making a different case:
They cited elevated student failure rates in the first marking period in every grade compared to a year ago.
They read a parent’s email urging the board to “spare no effort to return students to in person learning.”
And they argued the drop in grades and learning have been so great, students cannot wait for the vaccine.
The learning loss has proven “more dramatic and widespread than we had originally feared,” City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said.
Then taking the action the protesters outside anticipated, Santelises announced more in-person learning spots will be made available for kindergarten through fifth grade and for some high school students starting in mid-February. She said her office will share the official plans on Thursday.
Charter and contract schools will design their own plans and disclose them on each school’s website.
Since September, Baltimore has been moving more aggressively toward reopening than surrounding jurisdictions, drawing fire from groups representing teachers and parents.
Facebook video of last night’s “car rally” against reopening outside City Schools headquarters on North Avenue.
Last night Santelises said the district has made in-person learning safe, arguing that they have taken “a cautious and phased-in approach based on our health experts’ advice.” Over 2,000 children have gone back to school in 27 locations.
Under the new plan, Santelises said, in-person learning will remain an option for families. She anticipated that 20%-25% of families will choose to place their children back in school. Students will be assigned to small-group learning pods.
In grades six through twelve, 60% of students failed one or more classes last fall, compared to 38% in the previous year.
Disturbing student performance data compelled their decision, officials said.
In grades six through twelve, for example, 60% of students failed one or more classes last fall compared to 38% one year prior. And over two-thirds of ninth graders had at least one failing grade.
Exceeding CDC Standards
Sanetelises acknowledged pleas by some to hold off on further reopening because a Covid-19 vaccine is on the way.
People connected to educational settings are scheduled to be vaccinated during Phase 1B, according to the state health department website. Phase 1A vaccinations are happening now.
But because of the learning deficits “there isn’t time to wait,” Santelises said. “The best place for our students to learn is in a classroom with teachers who care about them.”
In addition to enforcing mask wearing, social distancing, contact tracing, disinfecting and handwashing, Santelises said the district has “exceeded CDC regulations” to ensure student and staff safety.
Every school, she said, will have air ventilation measures in place as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By the end of this month, the district’s website will host a dashboard showing the ventilation measures available in each school.
No Faith in System
But the Baltimore Teachers Union leaders and others who staged last night’s car rally outside district headquarters said they have no faith in the school system’s safety protocols.
The BTU’s Chris Bilal said in a prerecorded video during public comment that secretaries were mandated to return to buildings in September and were denied the medical accommodation to work from home due to having pre-existing conditions.
Bilal said the district refused to commit to regular ventilation assessments other than the seasonal testing already performed.
Even top-line filters “are meaningless for classrooms that lack working ventilation systems” – Chris Bilal, BTU.
The BTU, he said, was pleased the district was investing in top-line filters, but had been advised by his members that “such measures are meaningless for classrooms that lack working ventilation systems.”
“We need to know when this will happen because we do not play about the health and safety of our parents of students and our staff,” Bilal said.
While some parents were echoing these concerns at the evening protest rally, others were said to have a different point of view, according to Jeffrey Washington, president of Federal Hill Preparatory School PTO.
In a letter read aloud by board officials at last night’s meeting, Washington said the parents he talks to are “crying out” for reopening the schools.