Petition to Baltimore City Public School Leaders
DATE: August 26, 2021
TO: Governor Larry Hogan, Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury, Mayor Brandon Scott,
Dr. Sonia Santelises
FROM: Parents of Baltimore Public School Children

Summary
We are concerned parents of elementary school children in Baltimore City who are ineligible for COVID-19 vaccination, and who are among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 Delta surge. In a couple of days, Baltimore schools are scheduled to reopen in person with mask mandates, which we support, and with pooled testing beginning September 13.

As of this writing, there is no district-wide plan for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 during mealtimes when students will not be wearing their masks. With pooled testing starting so late in the game, parents are concerned that young children, some of whom have underlying health conditions that put them in a high risk category for negative COVID-19 outcomes, will be thrown together with their friends and peers for the first time in almost 2 years, while they are expected to sit still and be quiet to avoid spreading the virus at lunchtime.

While parents lauded the formation of the Virtual Learning Academy in Baltimore City, the applications were made at a time before the reality of the Delta variant had fully hit home, and there was never any space in VLA for the youngest students in Pre-K. With this new danger, the VLA is no longer enough. We ask BCPSS leaders to:
Plan for pooled testing to begin during the first week of school,
Allow schools that are able and willing to create school-specific virtual options for parents to opt into, and
Provide outdoor eating spaces for all elementary and middle schools in the district.

Background
More than 4.1 million children have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, accounting for 14.3 percent of all cases, according to the latest data from the American Academy of Pediatrics. From July 15 to July 29, that percentage rose to 19 percent of weekly reported cases. During the original SARS-CoV2 strain, fewer children fell sick, partly due to virtual school options provided, which contributed to the number of pediatric cases staying relatively low. Because the Delta variant is so contagious, the increase in cases clearly shows the virus' potential, even in young, otherwise healthy children. So far, more than 16,000 children in the US have been hospitalized and more than 400 have died. Children who are infected are also at risk for a rare condition, called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS). About 4,100 of these cases in children have been reported in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children are also at added risk under the Delta variant for long COVID.

The Delta variant is more virulent and hyper-transmissible, leading to a spike in breakthrough infections even among vaccinated adults. Infected adults and youth (12 and up) can be asymptomatic but are able to infect others at the same rate as the unvaccinated. Compounding these risks, the age group least likely to wear masks effectively are between the ages of 5 - 18 years old. So even with masks and vaccinated teachers and parents, there is considerable risk to unvaccinated children, especially at mealtimes, when city school children will all take off their masks to eat.

The COVID-19 numbers in Maryland currently are higher than last year when Baltimore opted for virtual schooling. According to the Baltimore City Coronavirus Dashboard, Baltimore City’s 7-day average new case count stands at 79, and the test positivity has been steadily increasing now reaching 3.3%. Students are returning from summer vacations and visits with family members in parts of the state or region where case numbers are even higher, which means they could have come into contact with COVID-19 in the days and weeks before school. Since there will be no pooled testing in the first two weeks of school, the probability of an outbreak is high. Moreover, with no plan currently in place district-wide for safety during mealtimes, many parents are not convinced that school will be safe.

Complicating Factors
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases have started to pop-up in the State of Maryland much sooner than we typically see. Maryland pediatric units do not have the capacity to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 and increasing seasonal RSV cases.  Of note, severe cases of RSV require the same supportive care (Ventilators, supplemental Oxygen and ICU beds) as COVID-19 patients. Some of the undersigned have young children who are at higher risk for both COVID-19 complications and contracting RSV.

The VLA is an excellent option, but the deadline to apply for VLA was prior to the outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19. This means that several parents who would like to have a virtual option now that unvaccinated children are at much higher risk cannot send their kids to VLA. Moreover, many of the district’s plans for school safety were put in place before the dangers of the Delta variant were known. It is unclear whether and how the District is revising its plans and guidance relative to the increased risk we currently face.

In light of the new dangers and changing situation, many parents are weighing how to minimize the risk exposure for their children, including filing for homeschooling, and worse than that, many parents are considering truancy as their only option for keeping their children safe. The decrease in attendance during the first weeks of the school year could have devastating effects on public school funding. If the district does not immediately take heed of our recommendations, Baltimore City could have a serious truancy crisis on our hands, which will only exacerbate the already severe learning loss associated with pandemic schooling.

Parent Requests
The current BCPSS plan does not appear to address concerns over the Delta variant and its impact on young children. There is no Pre-K option in BCPSS’ VLA. Schools need flexibility from the district to offer more virtual and hybrid options that address local parent concerns, in particular those with a specialized curriculum that is not easily replicated at home, such as language immersion. Importantly, a secondary benefit of expanding virtual/hybrid learning programs is that students who want or need to attend in-person school will be safer in smaller numbers.

Requests:
Allow any school in the district that requests it the opportunity to create their own hybrid/virtual program that remains in place until kids can be vaccinated.
In absence of the above,  the district absentee policy should take into account any families who want to keep kids home during the first two weeks of school.

The current testing protocol, including a delayed start to pooled testing, needs adjustment in light of rising cases in the community (city and state) as well as emerging evidence of higher transmissibility and infectivity of the Delta variant. Further, families need more concrete information about how educational needs will be met in case of short-term quarantine (e.g. waiting for PCR test after exposure) or longer-term quarantine (e.g. illness).

Requests:
Require COVID tests for all kids before going back to school, or at least in the first week.
Reinstate temperature checks at the door every day.
Clarify district plans for schools where outbreaks occur during the first 2 weeks of school.
Clarify district plans if 100% of consent forms have not been signed by the Sept 13th pooled test start date.
Make virtual learning rather than packets the standard option where positive pooled tests result in an entire classroom being quarantined simultaneously.

Lunchtime represents the most dangerous period of the school day, when children will take off their masks to eat. Lunch is also the time of day when kids are free to have fun and be silly with their friends. Expecting students to eat quietly in socially-distanced indoor spaces is unrealistic and potentially dangerous. Howard County Schools have responded to this danger by purchasing outdoor canopies and tables so that students can have lunch outside. Parents at BIA and several other schools, in conjunction with PTO leadership, have already started raising money to purchase canopies and tables. The lack of a coordinated effort by the District means that schools that serve the poorest residents of Baltimore City may not be able to raise additional resources, which will result in inequitable distribution of COVID-19 outbreaks, putting the most vulnerable children of Baltimore City at even greater risk.

Requests:
Immediately offer supplemental funding to all schools in the district for the purchase of tents/canopies, picnic tables, and other necessities for outdoor eating.
Pay attention to whether or not schools have PTO and other resources available, so that vulnerable populations are not put at unnecessarily higher risk contributing to further inequities.


Conclusion
The reopening horror stories from the southern United States with outbreaks on the first day of school, overwhelmed pediatric hospitals, and deaths of children within days of getting infected are there for all to see. Governor Hogan, Superintendent Choudhury, Mayor Scott, and Dr. Santelises, you have the authority to prevent such a situation in Baltimore City. We are anticipating vaccine approval for the 5-11 age group in the coming months. Until such time as all children can be vaccinated, we, parents of Baltimore City School Children, ask you to meet these demands immediately.

Signed,

E. Mairin Barney, BIA & Gardenville Elementary parent
Allen Tobiaski Jr., BIA & Gardenville Elementary parent
Dr. Kona-Facia Freeman-NepayDaniela C. Rodriguez, BIA parent
Michael Schmittdiel, BIA parent
J. Anderson,  BIA Parent
S. Jones, BIA Parent
T. McClellan, BIA Parent
Lindsay Jones, BIA Parent
William K. Kumodzi, BIA & Baltimore Polytechnic Institute parent
Beatrice Haskins, BIA and Northwood Elm Parent
Jennifer Turner-Miller, HEMS and BSA Parent
Erin Cunningham, Tunbridge Public Charter School parent
Amy Tang, Hampstead Hill Academy parent
Sabina Sully, parent
Betsy Bartow, City Neighbors Charter School parent
Bonnie Crawford, Hampden 55 parent
Annie McLaughlin, PPPCS parent
Suzette Morgan, Concerned community member
Karen Spence, Concerned community member
Alexandra Rosenblatt, Medfield Heights Elementary School parent
Curt Kotula, Hampden Elementary #55 parent
Shannell Clarke, BIA parent
Billy Clarke, BIA parent
Ruby Miller, Concerned community member
Maureen ONeill, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute parent/teacher
M. Simms, Calvin Rodwell parent
Kelli Dickson, Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School parent
Melissa Harris, Parent, Teacher/School Staff
Nona Hatch, HEMS parent
Lauren Lee, BIA parent
Shawn Pope, BIA parent
Karen Richardson, BIA grandparent
Dr. Kona-Facia Freeman-Nepay, Founder/Executive Director, BIA


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