‘Closing the Distance’ Between COVID-19 and Baltimore Students’ Return to School

By Regi Taylor

Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) system has the unenviable task of safely returning students to school, or a stable, effective learning environment, in six weeks in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century.

Despite Governor Larry Hogan’s respectable stewardship fighting the coronavirus in Maryland, the raging disease flaring in other parts of the country is a mortal threat to us locally as the disease respects no geographic boundaries.

“Closing the Distance, Preparing for Reopening of City Schools” is the theme the board of education has adopted to convey the daunting task to maintain instructional continuity and the highest standards of learning for Baltimore students who were receiving a less than stellar aeducation prior to COVID-19.

BCPS Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, conducted a Family Virtual Town Hall last week to update stakeholders; school adminis- trators; teachers and staff; families; students; elected officials; unions; and community partners of the district’s strategies under consideration for school reopening scheduled for Monday, August 31, 2020.

Tentatively, the plan outlines a 3 Phase Framework. Phase 1 is fully remote learning, 100 percent virtual. Phase 2 is a hybrid model, combining virtual and some limited in-person classroom instruction, and Phase 3, “the new normal” is mostly in-person learning with some virtual as needed, incorpor- ating hygiene and distancing best practices as necessary.

Dr. Santelises’ July 9, 2020, virtual town hall also shared some preliminary results from polling the District conducted between July 1st and 8th from 7,665 respondents that revealed 83 percent of families were satisfied with the support received from their children’s teachers with distance learning and 81 percent who felt that school’s communicated clear curricular expectations.

On the downside, 48 percent of families reported their student’s emotional well-being suffered and 30 percent felt their children lost academic ground. The results were inconclusive among families regarding the overall efficacy of distance learning. Juggling work versus caring for at-home children appeared to be parents’ most challenging task.

As difficult as Baltimore City Public School administrators’ jobs appear to be, there are a plethora of related issues that must be addressed in coordination with City Hall to assure a smooth return to school next month whether instruction is virtual or in-person.

There are roughly 90,000 students attending Baltimore City Public Schools, nearly 15 percent of the city’s population. If there is a COVID-19 outbreak in the public school system, how long would it take for these kids to expose the rest of the city’s population, their immediate family, friends and neighbors?

Moreover, since the African American population has been determined to be more susceptible to coronavirus, exposing children to the disease in the school environment, coupled with the vulnerability of people in their imme- diate proximity, how long would it take to spark an uncontrolled spread in Baltimore?

One in seven, 14.5 percent of Baltimore’s population, is over 65 years old. These are the grandparents and elder relatives of the city’s 90,000 students. The risk of exposure from infected child carriers to older family members could be calamitous.

Then there’s the collective population of the entire public school population. Including students, teachers, staff and bus drivers, BCPS comprises nearly 100,000 persons, one-in-six of the total Baltimore City population.

With a lag time of two to three weeks before COVID-19 fully displays symptoms, and with current test result turn-around times as long as seven to 10 days, an outbreak in the city school system would be catastrophic before it was ever determined there was a problem.

While all of these issues are being weighed, there are other pressing logistical issues that must be resolved. In the event that students were to return to the classroom en masse how would social distancing be maintained for students transported by bus? If capacity is reduced on buses how will all students be transported to school on time?

If all students are taught virtually at the start of school how will the shortage of laptops and electronic notebooks be addressed? What about students who don’t have Internet access?

Then there is the question of nutrition. Under the long-distance learning scenario, how will students continue to receive school-served breakfast and lunch, particularly during inclement weather?

These concerns are very real. Tune-in and stay tuned to developments regarding city school reopening plans and to COVID-19 in general.

Adopting “Closing the Distance” as its theme becomes crystal clear when you consider how far Baltimore City Public Schools has to go to safely and effectively educate our children in the age of COVID-19.

West Baltimore native, Regi Taylor is

a married father of four. He is an artist, writer and media professional specializing in political history.

Brandon Scott’s Big Inheritance

Historically, the winner of Baltimore City’s Democratic mayoral primary has gone on to win City Hall in the general election. While congratulations are in order for Brandon Scott’s recent electoral achievement, we might want to hold off on uncorking the champagne bottles until New Year’s Eve.

Mr. Scott is inheriting perhaps the worst circumstances facing the city since Sheila Dixon faced down the Great Recession during her term in 2009 when the unemployment rate topped out at 10.6 percent.

By contrast, Baltimore City’s recent unemployment rate jumped 250 percent in the 30 days between March and April of 2020 from 4.9 percent to 11.9 percent. While specific information is not yet available, we can surmise that the unemployment rate for Baltimore’s African American residents is considerably higher.

In June 2019, the Brookings Institute, considered America’s most prestigious public policy think-tank, released a report outlining one of Baltimore City’s lowest historic unemployment rates for Caucasians at 3.5 percent, while the rate for African Americans was 10.4 percent, 300 percent higher.

If Baltimore’s April 2020 unemployment rate of 11.9 percent is proportional to June 2019’s rate then the city’s African American community is currently suffering from nearly 36 percent unemployment, at least. Adding insult to injury, thousands of the unemployed have yet to receive benefit payments filed months ago.

Keep in mind the 11.9 percent figure is 60 days old. In the six weeks since April through June 13, 2020, the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation reports more than 26,000 additional first time unemployment claims in Baltimore City.

This is where the comparison between Brandon Scott’s and Shiela Dixon’s “inheritances” ends.

The COVID-19 pandemic and all its ancillary social and economic ramifications will be waiting for Mr. Scott when he assumes office. If there’s a silver-lining it is the waning statistics associated with the virus thanks to the commendable job of Gov. Larry Hogan.

With 10.3 percent of the state’s population, Baltimore has suffered 11 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively, of Maryland’s confirmed Coronavirus infections and deaths. That’s 7148 cases among 65,007 in the state, and 310 deaths among 2963 fatalities. Hospitalizations, intubations and deaths continue to trend downward.

The threatening news for a Scott Administration regards a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, during flu season. Not only will this put a strain on the city’s healthcare system, the associated costs will further squeeze the city’s budget which is currently facing a roughly $50 million deficit.

If all this isn’t bad enough, how will Brandon Scott handle the avalanche of mortgage foreclosures, evictions and utility shut-offs resulting when the State ends its moratorium forbidding banks, landlords and BGE from taking action during the pandemic? There’s also the tremendous demand food assistance in the community.

Baltimore City renters represent more than half of residents, roughly 311,000 people. Another strong indication that Baltimoreans could experience mass evictions later this year is that prior to COVID-19’s assault one-in-four residents lived below the poverty line.

Couple this situation with the fact that over half of renters pay more than a third of their income in housing costs, a condition considered untenable, and the recipe for disaster becomes clearer.

Unfortunately, all these debacles could land on Baltimore City’s plate by Thanksgiving, just in time for the Holidays. This should not become Brandon Scott’s problem alone. He will need and deserves everybody’s support and cooperation to get through these crises precipitated by COVID-19. We wish Brandon all the very best.