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Baltimore School Employees, Students At Odds With Leadership Over Closing Schools Amid COVID-19 Surge

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Charlotte Juengel said she doesn't feel fully safe inside her school. The senior at Baltimore City College hasn't attended school since Friday because her family doesn't feel safe enough to let her go.

She's one of many who are currently questioning the safety of schools due to the recent rise of Covid cases.

In a letter to Baltimore school leadership, Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonté Brown called for City Schools to transition to virtual learning starting Wednesday until Jan. 7 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The Maryland Department of Health on Tuesday reported 6,218 new confirmed COVID cases, by far the most recorded in a 24-hour period. The state's 7-day positivity rate is now 12.15%, the highest since June 2020.

The teachers union said in an announcement that after speaking with Labor Relations and Baltimore City Public School Staff, they are concerned about the lack of preparation and contingency plans in place amid the surge, spurred by the Omicron variant.

"We had six cases on Friday, six on Sunday, six more on Monday and 18 yesterday," said Baltimore City College teacher and Union representative, Franca Muller Paz, "and then today we have 25 teachers symptomatic this morning that didn't report to school."

But school officials are saying differently. "Our schools are much safer than the city at large," said Alison Perkins-Cohen, Chief of Staff for Baltimore City Public Schools.

During the proposed virtual instruction period, the union suggested several actions:

  • On December 23rd teachers should post an asynchronous assignment in the morning. All staff should spend the remainder of the day preparing for virtual instruction to take place, at a minimum, during the week students return, January 3rd through January 7th.
  • On January 3rd and 4th City Schools should offer asynchronous instruction, while opening school buildings exclusively for technology distribution, and for administering PCR tests and providing students and families with multiple at-home rapid tests. During this week all air filters and ventilation systems must be checked and changed/upgraded. This past week, school-based staff have reiterated that many air filters and purifiers are in need of further maintenance.
  • Upon a contingent return to in-person instruction on January 10th, City Schools should test every student and staff member with a rapid test and a PCR test. Individuals who test positive should not be permitted to stay in school.

"A school-by-school, wait-and-see approach creates crises in schools and confusion across the district. We need district-wide action now," the union said.

In her letter to City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises, Board Chair Johnette Richardson, and the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, Brown said the school system should work with the city to meet any shortfalls.

"Over winter break my team is prepared to meet with you to work to ensure the safety of students and staff," Brown said. "If City Schools does not have the supplies necessary to carry out this plan, we urge you to work with Mayor Scott and the Baltimore City Health Department, along with the broader healthcare community, to address and correct any shortages."

But Perkins-Cohen said Wednesday, there are more negative impacts on students when closing schools and keeping students home does not mean they're staying safe.

Part of the reason Juengel feels so unsafe is the lack of testing. "I have not been tested in the school once," she said.

On Tuesday, Governor Larry Hogan pledged $30 million in additional funding for school systems to purchase more tests.

City Schools said they plan to test aggressively upon their return to class on January 3, 2022.

"We're going to front-load as much as we can, testing in the earlier part of the week," said Perkins-Cohen.

But others continue to fight against it, including Juengel and Muller Paz.

"I don't know what to tell teachers. Teachers that teach in a classroom that have 35 kids in the room, I just don't think that's a safe place for them to be right now," said Muller Paz.

Juengel co-authored a petition to close Baltimore City Public Schools for at least 14 days after the end of winter break and until the city is no longer considered in a "high transmission level" by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The petition has garnered over 900 signatures.

In the meantime, students in Prince George's County will be virtual until January 18, 2022. And Baltimore County is asking students and staff to prepare for possible closures.

City Public Schools is suspending all athletics through January 3, 2022.

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