BALTIMORE COUNTY—The Baltimore County school system is proceeding with a plan to start bringing faculty, staff and students back for in-person instruction in November.

It is not a popular plan amongst teachers, if the public comment section during the first meeting of the Baltimore County school board this month is any indication.

One-by-one, a parade of teachers (and a couple of parents) spoke out against the plan during the virtual meeting.

Specifically, the plan calls for staff to begin returning during a phased-in approach beginning on Nov. 2.

Small groups of students will begin returning on Nov. 16 at the four public day schools — Battle Monument (Dundalk), White Oak School (Parkville), Ridge Ruxton School (Towson) and Maiden Choice School (Arbutus).

Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, spoke at the school board meeting prior to the public comment portion:

“We have fielded countless emails from our members and our community,” Sexton said. “There are great concerns being raised over going back into the buildings, and great concerns being raised over not going back into the buildings.

“There have been hundreds of questions around safety, schedules, timelines, PTE, the medical fragility of students, staff who are at high risk {for complications from COVID-19] and a plethora of other issues.”

For the teachers who signed up to speak during the board meeting, there was only one concern: being forced to return to in-person teaching before they feel it is safe.

Ten teachers spoke, and they all prefaced their comments with the same opening sentence: “I stand in solidarity with the educators and families of the four targeted schools who are voicing overwhelming outrage over the hasty and ill-informed re-opening.”

“I can attest to the overwhelming fear and anxiety of existing inn the COVID era,” a Dundalk Middle School teacher began. “My body will not protect me from the virus, and I’m terrified of being forced back into school at this point, as is happening with the targeted schools.

“I would have to make a choice between my safety and my employment, because if I get this virus I will not survive. I’m 28 years old with my entire life ahead of me. I am not expandable. I give everything for this job; I should not have to give my life.”

The Dundalk Middle teacher cited a study estimating 22 percent of the global population have at least one underlying condition that puts them at high risk pf complications from COVID-19 — thus approximately 2,425 county teachers and 25,396 county students have high-risk conditions.

“We have a responsibility to protect our students and educators, and we have an infrastructure already in action to do so, she said.

The teacher then quoted a faculty member from one of the four targeted schools, who said they had attended the funerals of three students who died due to their medically fragile conditions: “BCPS is sending their most high-risk and medically-fragile students back into school, from the four targeted schools. A threat to our most vulnerable population is a threat to our community as a whole.”

The families of students schedule to return in November need not do so; they may opt-out and return when the second semester begins on Feb. 1.

School faculty does not have that option.

“Why?” the Dundalk Middle teacher asked. “Are we expendable? Re-0opening schools is a calculated risk, but BCPS is doing the math and not letting us see the formula.”

A teacher at Deep Creek Middle School, after making her “I stand in solidarity ...” statement, read from a letter she said was written by a school nurse who did not agree with the plan to reopen the four targeted schools.

“This plan is driven by political pressure at the federal and state government level, as well as monetary incentive offered by Gov. Hogan, rather than by sound health advice.” the nurse wrote. “A number of students at the special schools have multiple serious medical diagnosis and are extremely medically fragile.

“These students are at high-risk for life-threatening consequences if they contract COVID-19. Medical experts do not recommend high-risk students be cohorted in enclosed spaces with inadequate building ventilation and the inability of students to comply with social distancing and the wearing of masks.”

The other teachers and a couple of parents expressed similar sentiments: concern for their health and that of their students; being forced to decide between the health and their job; afraid of exposing their families to the virus.

Prior to public comment, however, some inadequacies with remote learning were highlighted.

A member of the Special Education Citizen Advisory Committee reported that, while some special education students preferred the online classes, there was another group who could not engage at all with remote learning.

“We know these students need a return to classrooms to regain lost skills and move forward, or perhaps they need a teacher one-to-one physically present with them in their homes,” she said.

“There is also a third category of students being largely ignored: this is the group that could learn remotely if they had the proper support. They experience intense frustration and growing learning gaps. The barriers in distance learning are too many, and the supports provided are too few.”

The Special Education Citizen Advisory Committee has heard from “parents who are at their breaking point watching their child regress, or become frustrated or demoralized. We have heard about kids begging for this to stop.

“Many teachers are putting on a brave face, many parents are doing their best, but virtual learning is not working for many children. Additional support and intervention could improve the situation, but these issues are not being problem-solved fast enough at the system level.”

Some of the problems: children who can’t manipulate an online worksheet aren’t getting printed materials and worksheets; students who need a scribe aren’t getting people to write for them; and students who are unable to learn in large groups aren’t being put in smaller groups due to staffing limitations.

“My own child,” the committee member said, “has been unable to make it through a single class and has received no education since the school year began because he cannot access it. We need to get honest about the problems with virtual learning and the possible solutions.”

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