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Baltimore unions concerned about continued school reopenings during rise in COVID-19 cases

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Posted at 5:25 PM, Nov 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 07:31:46-05

BALTIMORE (WMAR) — With COVID-19 cases rising in Baltimore, the city school system announced they are scaling back with reopening but Thursday, several unions representing teachers and nurses said they want the district to go a step further and close the schools.

"We shouldn’t be talking about schools reopening right now. We should be talking about safety, survival," said Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

For some of the people working in Baltimore City schools, it’s actually a matter of life and death.

"I’m tired of my members dying. I’m tired of my members becoming ill," said Wendy Smith, president of Local 58, the union for Baltimore community health nurses.

She said one of her members died from contracting COVID in a school and others have gotten sick because they don’t have N-95 masks.

"My nurses do not have what they need to keep them safe. We do have have the PPE that is required to save lives," said Smith.

She joined calls from the Baltimore Teachers Union and City Union of Baltimore during a virtual press conference Thursday to halt reopening plans as cases continue to rise.

"There’s just so many things that are wrong with this right now that we need to take a step back and look at it and say what exactly is best for our children and our members who are in these situations," said Antoinette Ryan Johnson, president of the City Union of Baltimore.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises said they have purchased millions of dollars of PPE and cleaning supplies, and the nurse who died did not contract COVID-19 at a school. She said since reopening, they have only had one positive case and no cases of transmission. But with rising rates, they are scaling back reopening from 44 schools to just 27 as of Monday, saying it’s safe to bring back small groups of students who really need the in-person learning.

"Some of our most vulnerable students for whom virtual learning is not working really need that in person opportunity," said Santelises. "We are not seeing within school transmission which signals to us that directionally our safety precautions are in place."

The teachers union president said the focus should be on safety and making remote learning the best it can be.

"We need effective devices and stable internet connections. We need additional school personnel to do outreach to our families," said Brown.

The district said it is continuing to distribute resources as needed, and they launched a dashboard to show COVID-19 data by school.