By Anna Hovet
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Parents of Baltimore school children expressed mixed emotions yesterday about the public education system’s plans to partially reopen some schools for students and teachers in November.
Supporters of the plan said during a virtual meeting of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners that their children need the structure and discipline that in-person classes provide while opponents argued that it is still not safe to reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kevin Nickey, whose son attends Claremont Middle/High School in East Baltimore, said he was eager for his child to get back into the classroom.
“My son is used to discipline and getting ready for school and getting on the bus,” Nickey said. “He has a regiment he is used to and when the bus doesn’t come he doesn’t understand. He is excited about going to school and looks forward to seeing his peers, teachers, and sitting at his desk.”
Kashima Jackson, the mother of two sons who attend Dorothy Height Elementary School, said her youngest son has autism and uses the special education resources at the school. She said she is happy that she and her husband decided to send their sons back to school.
“I thought [sending them to school] would be a great way for them to feel like he has a sense of normalcy and also for my youngest to work on his social skills to be able to build new friendships and relationships,” Jackson said. “I felt as though both my sons would benefit from it because I’m not a school teacher and I don’t have the patience that school teachers have.”
Some parents still had concerns over the safety of reopening the schools.
Tishea Lester, a representative of the teacher’s union who previously served as community school coordinator with the city, said she was speaking as the mother of three school children when she argued that it is not safe to reopen.
“I know there are many kids who are missing school, but it isn’t safe and Baltimore city isn’t prepared to open schools,” Lester said. “District plans are currently incomplete. There is no real blueprint or plan that will keep kids and employees safe. There are legitimate health concerns.”
Lester called upon the school board to prioritize the safety of students and staff.
“We cannot move forward with students and in-person staff without taking necessary precautions,” Lester said. “It’s still not safe. Classrooms previously had ventilation issues that new filters alone do not solve.”
There are currently about 1,000 students who are physically going to centers where they can receive internet access to attend online classes.
Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises announced earlier this month that the city would be reopening 25 schools during the second quarter that begins in November to accommodate students who are at risk of falling behind. Students who will be returning include those in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, special education, and some sixth and ninth graders. Students who are homeless as well as those in career technology classes will also come back.
The schedule is based on a plan developed by school officials in August.
Cleo Hirsch, the special assistant to the chief of staff at the Baltimore Public Schools, said during the meeting that the first concern for everyone is the health and safety of the students and teachers.
“When we laid out our plans for reopening in August, we set out some guiding principles around our plan for reopening our schools and paramount among those principles was health and safety,” Hirsch said. “Our focus on health and safety remains today as we prepare for this next phase of reopening.”
School staff have been present at some schools since Gov. Larry Hogan announced in March schools would be shutting down. Since then, Hirsch said school officials have been slowly calling staff back to support the needs of students and the school community.
“Virtual learning has been going great for a lot of families, but we know that it is not as effective for some groups of students than others,” Hirsch said. “Specifically, our early learners and our special education students are two categories of students where virtual learning is frankly hard. So, as we prepare for the next phase of reopening, we will be asking staff who support early learners and special education students at select schools participating in the reopening plan to return to in-person learning.”
The school board works closely with the health department and the public health advisory to evaluate case data, Hirsch said. They keep an eye on community indicators and track community metrics to ensure they are on the right path, Hirsch said.
“In Baltimore City, we are at a 2.3% test positivity rate,” Hirsch said. “From there, we look at the new case rate, 11.3%, which represents the last seven-day average daily new case rate per 100,000 people. That puts us very safely within the realm of being able to offer limited in-person programs.”
Hirsch said that with where the numbers are currently, the city could offer hybrid, or partially in-person programs. However, Hirsch also said if there is a spike within the data or cases increase sharply, a group of health experts will reassess the plans.
Linda Chinnia, the chairperson of Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, expressed her excitement about schools starting to reopen and outlined the priorities the board will maintain.
“The board has three competing priorities to meet the goal [of safely going back to school],” Chinnia said. “We want to meet with in-person public comment; we must do so safely by following social distancing and health guidance; and we must make sure all citizens can continue to participate virtually if they choose.”
Chinnia also assured parents that full capacity is not a viable option at this time, due to not having the appropriate size spaces and technology to host in-person meetings fully and safely.
“The best way to ensure maximum participation with the fewest challenges is to maintain the current status quo,” Chinnia said. “Our virtual approach has proven successful and most importantly, stable. Right now, any member of the public may participate safely and thoroughly in ways that are not currently possible with the in-person meetings. Please know, again, the Board of School Commissioners looks forward to resuming in-person meetings in the future as circumstances allow. In the meantime, we are focused on ensuring maximum community participation in these circumstances and virtual meetings are the best way to do that.”