Baltimore city schools reopen for in-person learning

Baltimore city schools welcomed thousands of students back to school buildings Monday. It's the first time in nearly a year students have been allowed back into the classroom. Sonja Santelises, superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools and a member of the organization Chiefs for Change, joined CBSN's Tanya Rivero to discuss the safety and health measures being implemented to help keep students and staff safe.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: Baltimore City schools welcomed thousands of students back to school buildings today. It is the first time in nearly a year students have been allowed back into the classroom. School officials gave parents across the city the option of having their children returned for in-person lessons or to remain at home for remote schooling. Elementary school students were the first students to return. Older students will be able to get back to in-person learning in phases.

For more on this, we are joined now by the-- the superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools Sonia Santelises. She's also a member of the organization Chiefs for Change. Superintendent, welcome. It's great to have you with us. Tell us about the health measures being implemented to help keep teachers and faculty safe as they return to these buildings.

SONJA SANTELISES: Thank you for having me. So a number of our mitigation strategies to keep staff and students safe follow the CDC guidelines and actually exceed some of those guidelines. So clearly, masking is a very important, face shields for teachers and staff that are screening, daily screenings at student center buildings. We also know that there's been a lot of attention to ventilation challenges.

Particularly in districts like Baltimore City that just see an underfunded building infrastructure, we've invested in HEPA air filters as well as air-- HEPA air purifiers in classrooms and most recently both symptomatic testing as well as asymptomatic testing and partnership with Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland around prioritized vaccination for teachers. So we really are implementing a number of mitigation strategies together to help make sure that students are safe and staff are safe.

TANYA RIVERO: It certainly sounds comprehensive. Now, some of the state's youngest public school students returned to physical buildings for in-person classes already. What are some of the reasons that this group is prioritized? And when can older students expect to have the option to return to their classrooms?

SONJA SANTELISES: It's a great question. We began very slowly steadily bringing back small numbers and targeted outreach to our kindergarten through second grade students and their families. Today, we really opened it up throughout the city.

And part of the reason is younger children just developmentally need more interaction. They need more time to actually see their teacher. A lot of the socialization is so important in those early years. We want to make sure that they get a strong start to early foundational reading, which has been a district focus for-- for Baltimore City for a while, and just the social-emotional connections.

I was in one school this morning. And a first grade student who has not been back in school in person for a year was really glad to be back but also you could tell was having a time trying to adjust. And the teacher and school social worker and principal were all there to really help. So socialization is really important for our younger students. And that's why we wanted to make sure we could have safe options for families.

TANYA RIVERO: Absolutely. Makes so much sense. Now, of course, many Black and Latino parents do express some skepticism about sending their children back to school being that these two groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. What are some of the ways you're addressing this reluctance and their specific concerns?

SONJA SANTELISES: Well, we know-- I know in particular and we all know that within Black and Brown communities, there's a long history of under-delivering on a lot of promises and promises broken frankly both by medical institutions and educational institutions. So part of what we have really done in city schools here in Baltimore is really taken a slow and steady approach.

And what we're finding is that when families see, when teachers see, that all of the mitigation strategies are in place, when they see that we are following through-- I was over at one of our schools this morning, Waverly, that had 100% of teachers and staff returning. And a lot of that had to do with staff and teachers seeing that things were in place, families seeing that the masks were real, the cleaning is real, the air filters, the air purifiers are real, that we really are keeping children safe.

What we have found is in a lot of our schools that started slow and steady even back in the fall, we now have 50% to 60% of families returning. We have over-predicted numbers of our Latino families returning. We still have about a 10% gap in our Black families returning but slow and steady, reaching out directly, in-person orientation.

I had talked to one principal this morning. She and her staff started out with only 60 Black families returning and now are up to 147. And that is because of direct outreach-- phone calls, spending time answering families' questions. And frankly, seeing is believing.

TANYA RIVERO: Well, that is great news. It is always great to hear students making it back into the classroom. Is your school district having any issues with some students who have fallen off the grid, so to speak? We know that some districts have sort of lost track, as it were, of students who just stopped attending online classes. And if so, how are you sort of finding those students and bringing them back into the fold?

SONJA SANTELISES: We like many of our colleagues across the country have seen increased numbers of students who are chronically absent. As a matter of fact, that kindergartner that I referenced earlier, when I asked the principal about whether he had been connecting online, and she said, oh, absolutely not. We had not seen him since October. And it was part of why we reached out. So what we're finding is home visits, actually going to families, going to our students, working with our community partners.

We have fabulous community partners here in Baltimore City. And frankly, some of those community organizations know where some of our, quote, "lost" young people are. And so it means our team going out, outreach.

I met a young man, a 16-year-old, who was kind of sheepish last Thursday on his way into central office to be kind of reconnected. And it was-- it was great to-- to see. But it required a caring adult to show that we care. We care when you're not there. And that's-- that's what it's taking.

TANYA RIVERO: Right.

SONJA SANTELISES: This is this groundwork that it requires.

TANYA RIVERO: It's incredible work. And Superintendent Sonia Santelises, thank you so much for telling us about it. And good luck getting all your classes up and running again. It's really good news.

SONJA SANTELISES: Thank you so much.