BTU Update #7: Problems with the November Reopening
With a planned November reopening of separate public day schools, special education pre-k and k programs, and kindergarten and LRE-C classrooms in 27 schools, BTU has continued to seek answers and demand stronger protections. Increasingly, BTU’s push for improved safety protocols and greater transparency has been politicized by some in the district as opportunistic opposition. However, anyone who is a part of these conversations understands how incomplete the district’s plans are and how much more they could do to create a safer environment. BTU is not simply opposing what the district wants to do for the sake of opposition; we have legitimate health concerns and many of them could be addressed if the district was willing to prioritize the safety of its students, staff, and the broader community. The district has refused to bargain with the BTU over the most substantive issues of when and how schools will reopen, and the system is hastily shifting groups of students and staff to in-person instruction without taking the necessary precautions.
Our youngest and most medically vulnerable students deserve safety, yet this is exactly what our school refuses to take steps to document or guarantee.
TRANSPARENCY IN SCHOOL CLOSURES
There is no publicly available log of COVID-19 related school closures or the outcomes of contact tracing investigations
BTU has repeatedly proposed the creation of a school closure log hosted on the City Schools website that maintains a list of the date and location of any school closure, including food distribution sites and student learning centers. This log would include the length of the closure, the cause (whether it’s a suspected case due to observed symptoms or a confirmed COVID-19 case), and the result of any contact tracing effort (including whether any community transmission occurred at the site). Currently, school closures are posted for a day or two and then nothing is publicly reported when the site reopens. The district’s perspective has been that such a log would cause unnecessary anxiety since most closures only occur out of an abundance of caution with no COVID-19 positive cases ultimately being reported. BTU rejects this and believes the opposite is true: a public record of closures taken out of an abundance of caution and reported investigations of no COVID-19 transmission would breed trust and reduce anxiety. We also believe that transparency for staff, families, and the public at large is worthwhile regardless of what any contact tracing investigation finds.
TRANSPARENCY IN REOPENING & CLOSING DECISIONS
There is no publicly available City Schools Health Dashboard that displays the health data the school system is using to make reopening decisions. The school system needs to articulate its red lines for transitions between virtual and in-person learning.
The district’s Draft Reopening Plan calls for a “COVID dashboard” that tracks four key metrics that will inform reopening and closing decisions, however it is unclear if this exists or if it’s still in development. City government has a COVID dashboard, but it lacks the specificity of what City Schools committed to building, which would include information that would allow school-specific decision making. District leadership has stated that they have no single red line or a collection of red lines that would lead to the system-wide end of in-person learning, rather they will take all data as indicators that could lead to a decision one way or another. This is unacceptable. The health data the school system analyzes needs to be publicly available, and we need a transparent decision making process that lets families, staff, and all of Baltimore know under what conditions the city or a given school community will have in-person learning options restricted. The lack of uncertainty creates an unaccountable decision-making process that heightens confusion and unnecessary anxiety.
COMPREHENSIVE TESTING PLAN
City Schools will not commit to a comprehensive COVID-19 testing plan for students or staff.
BTU has engaged in several conversations with district leadership about testing, citing what other large school systems have committed to and the need for the district to create a comprehensive plan that can be enforced through a MOU with the union. The district has rejected this and has said that they do not intend to perform proactive testing of employees or students. We have been told for several months that the district is negotiating with some health providers to secure rapid response testing for students and staff who exhibit symptoms, however no details have been released. As of now, the district’s health and safety guide simply says that if a student is experiencing symptoms the school nurse should communicate with the family about testing options. Before returning to in-person instruction, we need a comprehensive testing plan.
NURSES ARE NEEDED AT EVERY SCHOOL
City Schools has not guaranteed that a full-time school nurse will be present for every school that is offering in-person instruction. Students and staff need and deserve full-time, on-site nurses.
The BTU is waiting on an update, and it is unacceptable that this has not been addressed in district plans. Representatives of the nurses and health aides who staff City Schools health suites and wellness rooms report that on any given day nearly 30% of staff are absent due to following the CDC guidelines that instruct employees to stay home when they are experiencing any of the COVID-19 symptoms. The district has not been able to articulate if a plan exists for when a nurse calls out sick. This is complicated by the fact that health suites are staffed by employees of the City Health Department rather than employees of City Schools. Regardless, a comprehensive nursing plan must be established prior to any reopening of schools.
DETAILED, PUBLIC VENTILATION ASSESSMENTS ARE NEEDED, AS IS OCCUPANCY MAXIMUMS SIGNAGE
The district will not commit to a ventilation assessment of each classroom, rather they are only requiring seasonal ventilation assessments that are already part of facility checks. All spaces that will be occupied by students and staff need to be assessed. Maximum occupancy capacity for each classroom needs to be posted.
While BTU is pleased that the district is investing in MERV 13 filters, such measures are meaningless for classrooms that lack working ventilation systems. Every Baltimore City educator knows of classrooms that have ventilation issues, even in some of our 21st Century Buildings, yet we are told that there is not a single school building that is not ready for in-person learning. The school system rejected a BTU proposal that would require each classroom to receive a written ventilation assessment, instead committing to weekly facilities walkthroughs that don’t require publicly available documentation. This is not good enough. While City Schools states that they don’t have the capacity to check all classrooms, much larger school systems, such as New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere are completing ventilation assessments of all classrooms, publicly posting the results, and using them to inform maintenance and reopening plans.
BTU also proposed maximum occupancy signage for each classroom, but again the district rejected this, stating that the system doesn’t have capacity to complete this task. BTU secured a commitment from the district to be given a list of all rooms that may be utilized for in-person instruction, but this has not yet been done.
If the school system doesn’t have the capacity to complete written ventilation assessments and post signage limiting the maximum occupancy of each classroom, then the school system doesn’t have the capacity to open for in-person learning. Much larger school systems are able to handle these tasks, we should be able to.
COHORTS NEED TO BE ISOLATED FROM ONE ANOTHER
The district’s mid-November reopening will require some staff to travel between different student cohorts and even different schools, undermining cohort and school isolation and increasing the risk of transmission.
As part of its reopening plan, City Schools has directed a large group of Related Service Providers (RSPs) to return to in-person work. Nearly all of these workers have caseloads that span across multiple schools, including many of the 27 schools that are reopening. City Schools told BTU that they will try to limit the amount of staff that need to travel between different schools and student cohorts, but that they can’t guarantee that they will eliminate this practice.
Cross-cohort requirements erode the concept of student cohort isolation and violates the spirit of the district’s own Health and Safety Guide. Requiring RSPs to work with multiple student cohorts and multiple schools needlessly intensifies the risk of transmission and increases the likelihood of multiple schools needing to close in the case of a suspected coronavirus transmission. To keep students and staff safe, no RSP or any other staff member should be assigned to work with multiple student cohorts or multiple schools.
ALLOW STAFF TO VOLUNTEER RATHER THAN MANDATE IN-PERSON WORK & FIX THE BROKEN ACCOMMODATIONS SYSTEM
Secretaries with preexisting conditions have been denied medical accommodations that would allow them to continue to work from home. Educators directed to work in-person are too often being told to take unpaid leave rather than being reassigned to available distance learning classrooms.
District leadership has mandated several hundred staff members to return rather than first seeking volunteers at their schools. Contrary to some district messaging, the school system is not primarily relying on staff volunteers for the sites that will reopen in November. Instead of working with staff to ensure that those with childcare needs can continue to work from home, the district has advised them to take a leave of absence. This practice interrupts the continuity of support for students with the greatest needs and intensifies the use of high-turnover, contracted therapists, social workers, and so on who work on a temporary basis and have limited connections with our students, families, and communities. Not prioritizing the consistency of service provision is bad for students and bad for staff.
BTU has no commitment from the district that staff with medically fragile families will receive accommodations, meaning that some staff will be forced to choose between the health of their family and receiving a paycheck. BTU’s attempts to structure a voluntary return to in-person work were rejected outright with no counter proposals despite the fact that the school system believes many educators are willing to work in-person. The district has exhibited no desire to assist educators beyond the legal minimum of what it is required to do.
DON’T THROW VIRTUAL LEARNING INTO CHAOS
Despite the vast majority of City Schools students and staff continuing in virtual learning, the district has prioritized its attention and limited resources elsewhere. District leadership has now indicated that some educators may be required to simultaneously work in-person and virtually through the use of cameras, degrading the educational quality for all students while increasing workloads, stress, and demoralization among staff.
While many questions remain unanswered about such plans, district leadership has indicated that some staff will be required to teach both in-person and virtually, and that some of these staff may be required to do both simultaneously. Such plans are an instructional nightmare that are deeply out of touch with student needs and the basics of instructional practice. Teaching a virtual lesson and teaching an in-person lesson are different tasks, requiring different planning considerations and different rates of instructional pacing. Any possible gains from in-person learning in a socially distanced classroom would be greatly curtailed by teachers also needing to meet the needs of students who are attending class online.
This is unworkable for any classroom population and is particularly absurd for the kindergarten and special education students who are returning to in-person learning – these students require more adult attention and less independent work time, not the opposite. Any family who is considering in-person learning should be notified by the school district that their student’s educator may face this dual requirement, resulting in poorer instructional quality and less in-person attention than what would be reasonably expected.
Generally, no educator should have any combination of in-person and virtual instruction, regardless of whether it is simultaneous or not. Even if teaching the same content, an in-person lesson has different activities and different pacing considerations than a virtual classroom and managing both will create bloated workloads and divided attention.
To go forward with these plans is absurd and unsustainable, leading to demoralization and burnout among staff while shortchanging our students who need instruction tailored to their specific context and needs. The district argues that in person instruction is necessary because racial achievement gaps are being exacerbated by black and brown students falling behind their white counterparts. But, we should question the argument that in-person instruction would be superior, considering the overwhelming combination of responsibilities for educators, and the unsafe conditions that will inevitably lead to closures and re-openings of sites that will create inconsistency for learners. We need a greater focus on where most of our students and staff are: the virtual environment. The school system should be prioritizing its efforts to support students and staff engaged in distance learning, determining and disseminating best practices by championing the progress that has been made and assisting where there are still gaps.
THE SCHOOL BOARD NEEDS TO EXERCISE ITS AUTHORITY
Unlike other Maryland school boards, The Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners has not taken a vote on the school reopening plan. While aspects of the plan have changed or been questionably enforced, official oversight and questions have been limited. We need more Board engagement and public scrutiny, not just orchestrated town halls broadcast on Facebook by district leadership.
The school board is charged with leading our school system and is in control of all public education matters within the city. The Board has the capacity to direct the CEO and intervene as it sees fit. While some commissioners have taken an active role in questioning certain aspects of the plan, they are the exception rather than the norm. With some of the most consequential decisions the Commissioners have ever faced, now more than ever the Board needs to shift its culture to reflect the public’s desire for greater deliberation, oversight, and accountability.
Our power as a union comes from our members and ties to the community, not from judges, lawyers, or government entities. When BTU officers speak to district leadership, our voices matter only because we have thousands of members standing behind us. The negotiating team can fight for better working conditions when the people across the table know that they have thousands of members standing beside them. Email the Board, take part in our phone banking action, make a public comment at next week’s Tuesday school board meeting or Thursday’s Board forum on schools reopening. Use any of the above to support making our voices heard.