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Rising to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic

BTU and the COVID-19 Task Force joined forces with the Parent and Community Advisory Board (PCAB) and other community members at North Avenue on September 30 to demand no physical return to schools in 2020 and a real plan for a safe reopening in 2021.

By Patrice Pilgrim 

A good leader leads and is aware enough of their skills to acknowledge when they don’t have the necessary information and listen to the counsel of others who do! So let me give a bit of context to that statement. The ‘rumors’ had started circulating that schools were going to be ‘shut down’ due to some ‘mysterious’ reason, that had yet to be shared with staff, the week of March 9th, 2020. At the time, I paid little attention to those rumors but my principal had the teachers at my school ‘start’ working on their Google Classrooms. I knew she had a reason but the ‘new car smell’ on my teaching career within the school and the District was still too fresh for me to quiz her on why. 

Fast forward four days and I had my answer, the COVID-19 pandemic. It proceeded to be an uncertain as well as uninformed time for many teachers as the District seemed either unable or unwilling to share its plans with staff and families. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that we have all had to find a new way forward – a new normal, if you will. The process should have been a collaborative effort with all relevant stakeholders. Instead, the District chose to take on more of a combative stance and largely alienated teachers and parents from the decision-making process of how we would all be moving forward.    

The second half of the third quarter felt like a mad dash made in the dead of night. We had little to no direction. All we knew was that we had to ‘figure out’ how teaching virtually would work. Daily, my inbox would be flooded with emails from the District, parents, and my colleagues as well as other concerned stakeholders. Some sought clarity on what needed to happen for them. Others were about the District telling teachers and staff what needed to happen. The fourth and final quarter of the school year was more of the same but with a bit more organization–but not by much. 

Being bored more often than not – you can only read so many books, play so many games on your phone and watch so many tv shows on Netflix and Hulu etc. before you need some other type of diversion – I began to avidly follow news and other related stories on the progression of COVID-19, with particular attention being paid to its progression in Baltimore City. I began to participate in a lot more conversations on the BTU’s private Facebook group and eventually signed on to work with others who were concerned about the actions of the District – or lack thereof. 

The COVID-19 Task Force was formed by rank and file BTU members that wanted to come together and collectively work on ways that would support teachers virtually as well as in person, during the pandemic. The mission statement of the task force is to advocate for the resources and supports that students, teachers, and parents need access to, in order for them to have a safe return to our schools. The task force has been hard at work, building a network of resources and supports for teachers, families, and students. With that being said, while the task force is all about collaboration with relevant stakeholders and welcomes the opportunity to engage in dialogue with interested and invested parties, this does not seem to be the case with the District as they have repeatedly rebuffed the efforts of the BTU to work collaboratively for the betterment of staff and students. 

School district after school district made the decision to open virtually in the fall from early on, while Baltimore City Public Schools waited until the ‘11th hour’ – July 20th to be precise, to come to that same decision – only after immense public pressure was exerted on them. Since that time, it’s almost as if the District has adopted the stance of a ‘mulish two-year-old’ that refuses to eat their beans, no matter how much effort is placed into explaining the health benefits. No matter how many times the BTU and its members attempt to introduce options for how virtually learning could and should work, the District refuses to listen to reason. Instead, the District has gone ahead and formulated a plan that affects thousands of teachers and students, without taking into account feedback from those groups in its creation or roll out. 

The virtual learning component of the District’s plan was heavy on synchronous instruction and placed less focus on asynchronous instruction. The Districts’ plan proposed 3 hours 20 minutes for Pre-K/Kindergarten, 3 hours 50 minutes for grades 1 – 5, 5 hours 15 minutes for middle school, and 6 hours + for the high schoolers. One of the main ‘sticking points’ that parents as well as teachers, have raised with me is the unrealistic expectation of the District that students will sit in front of a computer screen for hours at a time in order to engage in online learning. Research suggests that more overall time on screens each day, regardless of its quality, is linked to lower language development. This is one of many reasons why parents and teachers have been advocating for a more asynchronous approach to online learning. This approach would allow parents and students to engage in online learning as their schedules allowed while still allowing them to be active participants in the learning process. 

This particular school of thought has fallen on ‘deaf ears’ as far as the District is concerned as the schedule that has been implemented in most schools is very heavily reliant on the synchronous model. At the end of the day, the online learning model has the potential to be deeply impactful on students and teachers alike. What will make this model of education work is if the District works hand-in-hand with the teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders in the course of forging this new way forward. 

Patrice Pilgrim is an English and Creative Writing teacher at Independence High School Local 1 and the parent of two BCPSS students. She currently serves as the Chair of the COVID-19 Task Force. The Task Force needs more members to get involved! Please sign and share the Task Force’s Only When Safe petition and email to get plugged into the work of the Task Force. There are opportunities for involvement at any level of commitment for all skill-sets.