By A’niya Taylor, Joshua Lynn, and Kimberly Vasquez (BCPSS students)
How can school be a safe haven
If it is also a war zone
Principal be general
Classmates be soldiers
Education be America
And we be dying men
Sacrificing peace for pens
Safe space for essays
How can I add integers
When I’m risking subtracting my grandmother from the family equation
Every time I walk into the building
And they don’t care
They just want to multiply dollar signs
While dividing our lives
We be dying soldiers
Mistaking good grades for good days
How can we bear honor when we can’t keep the armor that saves us from things that harm us
-Excerpt from War on Students by A’niya Taylor
The hardest thing for a student to do is fail. As students, we are groomed into thinking that failure is equivalent to being unsuccessful. During this virtual learning experience, I have failed A LOT. Virtual learning sucks. It’s hard to grasp information over a computer screen and sit in front of one for hours at a time. It’s hard for me to focus on school when I am tirelessly fighting just to live and maintain my mental health. However, haphazardly moving back to in-person learning does not guarantee success or solve these problems; if anything, it sets us up for more failure and suffering.
While going back into school is optional, there are some students (myself included) who feel compelled to go back because we are failing. This puts students in a position to choose between grades and the health of ourselves, our families, and our teachers.
In reality however, this is a false decision. The problem isn’t the virtual learning itself; the virtual learning is just a mere catalyst for discussing the root problems of our school system: The root problem being that BCPSS has a lack of resources and an equity policy that they aren’t adhering to in the reopening process. Here are some key issues we need solved if we truly care about an equitable education for students and a safe return:
EQUITABLE REOPENING PLANNING WITH STUDENT VOICE
Youth who work and provide for their families is a major trend during this time of need and stability within Black and Brown households. BCPSS prides themselves on turning the corner when it comes to equity but fails to acknowledge the deep inequities that their proposal perpetuates. Equity has been the buzz word for multiple years when it comes to BCPSS but with this reopening plan we see the very same idea be challenged by its originator. BCPSS must commit to bringing students, parents, and educators to the table and ensuring they have meaningful decision-making power as we build a reopening plan together. Moving forward, the School Board Student Commissioner must have full voting rights in order to properly have a meaningful voice on the board in situations like these where the student voice is needed more than ever.
SAFE & ACCESSIBLE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
The MTA is a big transmission site for youth in Baltimore city. Considering that about 30,000 students catch public transportation, it is a high risk to allow students inside of a school building with unvaccinated teachers, staff, administrators as well as other students. As we see, about 60% of high school students need at least one transfer of buses in order to arrive at school, which allows for more exposure to the outside world where BCPSS has no control. BCPSS and the Baltimore City government must make a specific and detailed transportation plan that keeps students safe and must provide them with 24/7 CHARM cards now and after the pandemic.
INVESTMENT IN DIGITAL EQUITY
The digital divide has been present long before the pandemic hit. In Maryland, 23% of households have no broadband internet service. African Americans make up nearly 40% of those households. If we do not invest in getting students connected to high-speed internet, we are failing to provide the education that students have a fundamental right to. Many students also lack devices or depend on their phones and cellular data to complete work. This leads to ridiculously high bill payments at the end of every month. Other students have a device, but must share it with their family members.
Going back to school won’t solve this problem. Even though my home lacks reliable internet, I shouldn’t feel pressured to go to school in order to get this service. Instead of making teachers and students risk their lives, the state of Maryland, local governments and school districts should invest in sustainable at-home WiFi and devices for families.
FULL-TIME NURSES WITH REAL RESOURCES
Even before the pandemic, Baltimore’s schools have lacked full-time nurses. In Baltimore City, we only have 44 full-time registered nurses yet we have 169 schools. There are nurses that have to split their time between four different schools. According to Wendy Smith, the head of the school nurses union, “Baltimore City is the only jurisdiction that uses this model to deliver healthcare to students. In Maryland every school district has at least one nurse to a school and some systems have two for larger schools such as high schools.”
But in our schools, nurses are only available during certain days and certain hours of the week. Even when nurses are present, they lack the resources to truly care for students. I can’t count the number of times my peers or I have received a wet paper towel for our injuries instead of an ice pack. During this crisis, Baltimore school nurses have repeatedly sounded the alarm that they don’t have the proper protection to treat students. We must invest in the health and safety of our students in school. This means having a full-time nurse in the building 5 days a week during all school hours. And, they must be given the resources they need to adequately do their job. This is necessary now and after the pandemic.
A BREAK FROM STANDARDIZED TESTING
It is no surprise that Baltimore City students are routinely over-tested. If we return before the end of this school year, we cannot lose valuable learning time by being forced to take endless standardized tests such as the MCAP, HSA, iReady, WIDA, and others. BCPSS must put our learning first and waive State and City standardized tests for the remainder of the 20-21 school year and commit to advocating for reduced state testing and against MCAP being used to calculate our final grades in the future.
For these reasons, and the demands of our teachers (such as vaccines, ventilation upgrades, and others) we ask for students to do virtual learning from home as we have been doing since March. We are left with no other option but to fend for ourselves, our teachers and our families. We believe it is not safe to go back and begin in-person instruction.
If anyone wants to join our movement and support our needs for a safe-reopening, follow the movement on Twitter: @SOMOS_CityKnight, @thatboyjosh20, @poeticnonsense2, @theyouthbmore.