Baltimore City Public Schools will begin the upcoming school year online, with the possibility of a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning later this fall, school officials announced on Monday.
City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises said in a tele-conference that school officials based their decision on feedback from students, families, employees and stakeholders, as well as data on the “disproportionate impact” of remote instruction on “vulnerable students,” including students from low-income communities.
While the school system is preparing for a potential return to some form of in-person learning, Santelises said the organization must balance the health and safety of students and staff with students’ academic, social and emotional development during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the things that we do know is that in-person learning opportunities are the goal,” she said. “We also know that in the current health crisis we have to be thoughtful and we have to give adequate time to prepare for that.”
City Schools will provide an update on the possible return to in-person learning no later than Oct. 16.
In that time, Santelises said that school officials will be monitoring a variety of health indicators in coordination with the Baltimore City Health Department and Johns Hopkins.
If students and staff return to school buildings, Santelises said the school system will likely have to prioritize bringing back smaller groups of students and examine the conditions of school buildings, possibly installing new air filters to improve air quality.
“The conditions of Baltimore City school buildings are some of the most challenged in the state,” Santelises said.
The school system is also proposing that students begin the school year on Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.
The plan, which will be presented to the Board of School Commissioners for approval on July 28, would have teachers and 10-month staff return to work on Aug. 26.
Teachers and support staff would then be trained in virtual and hybrid learning from Aug. 26 through Sept. 4.
Staff normally have four to five days of professional development before students return to school, but this plan would add three to four days to help prepare for the online start of the school year, Santelises said.
Santelises said families were split 50-50 on whether to begin the school year with a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning or the virtual-only option that the school system eventually decided upon.
When planning the rest of the year, Santelises said it will be important for school officials to allow people to choose between multiple options.
“We have many staff that are just not comfortable [with returning to in-person instruction] … For some of our staff and families, the reality is they’re not going to be comfortable for awhile and that needs to be OK,” she said.
Santelises commended teachers for adapting to virtual learning with no notice since schools across Maryland closed in March.
But she said families will have higher expectations for the upcoming school year.
“The standard in the fall is higher,” she said. “What that looks like is far clearer communication about what the standards in distance learning will be.”
One thing school officials gathered from the past several months of remote instruction was that students learned better when they were able to interact virtually with their teachers on a regular basis, Santelises said.
Santelises said the school system distributed 20,000 laptops by the end of the school year and has ordered 35,000 additional devices to expand students’ access to online learning.
City Schools will also be distributing 10,000 WiFi hotspots from T-Mobile, she said. The purchase cost the school system $1.4 million, Baltimore Brew reported.
“I met families when I was at the supermarket who were using their personal cellphone hotspots as their child’s internet, and we know that’s not going to suffice,” Santelises said.
Families who do not have home internet can pick up a WiFi hotspot from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Thrusdays at City Schools’ headquarters, located at 200 E. North Ave.
Santelises added that the school system is conducting a “deeper analysis” of the growing need for devices and WiFi capabilities.
“People’s economic situations are changing as well,” she said. “There are people who had jobs in April or May who no longer are employed and that’s going to impact that access.”
The school system will rely on guidance from the state as it decides how to address interscholastic sports, Santelises said.
“I think part of the question has to be, ‘If we are starting school virtually, then really can we have competitive interscholastic athletics?’” she said. “And I will tell you this is painful for me.”
Santelises recounted how a coach recently contacted her about two athletes who are “in line for serious scholarship contention” and would be the first in their families to attend college.
Stories like those demonstrate “the real stakes for young people,” Santelises said. But she said City Schools is waiting for “full direction from the state” on whether schools can safely move forward with competitive sports.