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Baltimore begins push to reopen schools as students fall behind

Images by: Baltimore City Public Schools

Baltimore City Public Schools have started to reopen, but it's a fraction of all the students so far. Out of roughly 80,000 students who attend public schools there, 2,000 have returned to in-person learning, and an expanded reopening was recently delayed for the youngest students to address concerns over health and safety. Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The push to reopen schools is growing, even as some parents, teachers and families are concerned that it's not safe enough yet.

    President Biden reiterated his goals for doing so over the weekend. Just yesterday, Chicago and San Francisco, both involved in contentious battles, reached tentative agreements to reopen gradually.

    But even doing that in a limited way is challenging.

    Amna Nawaz looks at plans being made for a bigger reopening in Baltimore.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, Baltimore City Public Schools have started to reopen, but it's a fraction of all the students so far.

    Out of the roughly 80,000 students who attend public schools there, 2,000 kids have returned to in person learning. Now, the city recently delayed expanded reopening for its youngest students by two weeks to March 1. That will allow more time to address the concerns of teachers and educators.

    For a look at the challenges around this, I'm joined by Dr. Sonja Santelises. She is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.

    Dr. Santelises, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thank you for making the time.

    We mentioned that delayed reopening now. That means thousands of students will be welcomed back into your school for the first time in nearly a year, K through second grade by March 1. You're going to roll in older students after that through April.

    Based on what you have right now, in terms of masking and distancing and space to distance in the school, do you have everything you need to keep teachers and kids safe when they return?

  • Dr. Sonja Santelises:

    We believe we do, Amna.

    And I think a lot of that is because, one, we invested early in PPE, in redoing and revamping some of our ventilation systems, getting air purifiers where we could. We have also, as you noted, had about 2,000 students in with teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, aides, and that's since the summer.

    And so the slow and steady building of those numbers has really given us the experience to look back and say, this is how we can really work to keep our students and staff safe. And we have only had very minimal in school transmission, only one case. And that was at a lunch site.

    So, we feel as if we really have put the protocols in place to keep families, to keep students and our staff safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about your teachers? What are you hearing from them? We have heard from a number of other cities where teachers are very reluctant to return to school, saying they won't come back unless they are fully inoculated.

    Maryland has the same vaccine shortages everything else does. And we know now, based on reporting, that most of those Baltimore City teachers won't be fully inoculated before March the 1st. Are some of them reluctant to come back?

  • Sonja Santelises:

    Oh, absolutely.

    And I think it's a variety of things. I think, first and foremost, as one teacher just said to me very recently, a lot of this is fear of the unknown. And this is a teacher who has been in person since the summer. And one of the things she said is, until you're actually in and you can see what the protocols look like, you're going to be scared, because we have not done school as a nation in a pandemic prior to this year.

    She now feels more comfortable because she's been at it longer. But the other piece is, we have to take into account the social/emotional needs of a lot of our adults, as well as our students. We have staff who've lost numbers of family members. I talked to a teacher just recently who had to bury her father from COVID, and another who lost anywhere from 10-plus members of her family within this pandemic.

    And so it really does emphasize the need, one, to be able to reassure our staff that we have the safety measures in place — and we do — and also for staff to be able to hear from their colleagues, not just from the CEO of the system, but also from colleagues that are actually out in the field doing the work, from our — from our experience, tends to have a far larger impact than anything I might be able to say or do.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about reluctance among some families?

    I mean, for all the push to reopen schools, we know — and the CDC studies have shown — specifically among Black and Latino families, there has been real skepticism about sending their kids back into schools, and understandably so, right?

    These are communities that have been the hardest hit in the pandemic. What are you seeing in your community? And what are you doing to meet them where their concerns are?

  • Sonja Santelises:

    So, yes, we have absolutely seen that, with the large numbers of Black and Latino families that we serve, that a — that the historical distrust of institutions, including educational institutions and health institutions, is just compounding some of the hesitancy in some families' return.

    What we have found is that, slow and steady, demonstrating that your children are safe, that some of the conditions that were the case prior to the pandemic, we have addressed.

    So, something very simple that a number of teachers, not just in Baltimore, but across the country, talk about is, well, for example, things like hand soap, right? We know the CDC recommends handwashing frequently.

    Well, one of the things we had to do here in Baltimore City was revamp and centralize how we distribute hand sanitizer and soap to schools. So, when families started coming in and seeing that, yes, there is hand sanitizer, yes, there is social distancing, yes, there is an air purifier in the classroom, it was an exercise in gaining trust for families.

    And we know, those of us who serve large numbers of community members who just have not had that trusting relationship, this really is a trust-building exercise. And so where we can make sure that parents can speak to the principals, see for themselves, actually talk to their children at the end of the day and get pictures during the day, open houses, so that families have the chance to dialogue and know what the protocols are, we're more likely to get that success over time.

    And that's what we saw this fall, where we started with only 250 families out of 1,000 initial spaces. Within three weeks, we had all 1,000 of those spaces filled because word began to spread and families saw that we were delivering on our promise to follow those protocols.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How concerned are you about the long-term impact on these kids' academic careers if you don't reopen soon?

  • Sonja Santelises:

    No, it's a great question.

    And one of the things that we are working on now is, what does what we call accelerating learning, learning recovery actually going to need to look like, even beyond just opening the school buildings?

    But some of the — some of the data that we were seeing that was particularly concerning with regards to student learning loss, for example, was our ninth grade data. And we know, as educators, that the research is very clear that ninth grade performance is an intense indicator of the likelihood that a young person will graduate from high school and graduate ready for college or career.

    We saw an increase of close to 30 percent, anywhere between 25 and 30 percent of our ninth graders who had at least one course failure or had a GPA less than 1.0. And that is a real telling sign of concern of the long-term impact for a number of our ninth graders, who are just beginning their high school career.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, thank you for making the time. And we wish you good luck and safety in the weeks and months ahead. Thanks again.

  • Sonja Santelises:

    Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.

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