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A Perspective on the District’s Work During COVID-19

Kevin Leary, Senior Program Director at the Fund for Educational Excellence, reflects on the district’s role during COVID-19 and shares his perspective on the rapid shift to remote learning:

Over the past few months, the Fund for Educational Excellence has expanded its ongoing commitment to working with and supporting Baltimore City Public Schools as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the rapid transition to distance learning and a pivot to supporting families with urgent needs like food and technology.

Spending long hours with district leadership on a critical task like this naturally lends itself to moments of reflection, and, to paraphrase Hamilton, I’ve realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time:

  1. City Schools continues to step in to serve students and families in ways that go well beyond educating children – In large part due to declining public investment and political will to provide vital public services to families that need them, it has come to be expected that our public schools will support students and families in navigating the many challenges of poverty. While this support has become core to how schools approach their day-to-day work, these efforts were even more visible during COVID-19. Schools became hubs for food distribution (not just to students, but for adults as well), for disseminating computers to students, for sharing information, and for providing other vital services and supplies. Principals and staff bravely distributed over 19,000 computers and 600,000 meals, all while serving as beacons of calm and support to their students and their families.

We’ve also seen this play out within central office, as the district has been compelled to assume a leading role in securing internet access for families without it. Internet connectivity is critically important for students to be able to participate in virtual learning opportunities – what is less clear is why the responsibility of negotiating with Comcast or figuring out how to amplify internet signals to the community has fallen to the school district. The digital divide is not new, but it took a global pandemic to bring it to the light for many. This is a problem that screams for a city-wide solution, and we hope to see our elected leaders show greater leadership in creating a longer-term, more sustainable solution to municipal broadband access.

A school system’s core responsibility is to educate children. However, when the expectation is for the system, schools, principals, and teachers to also address and attempt to fix structural inequities and underinvestment, the work is harder, the cost is greater, and it is the education that suffers.

  1. Things are going to get harder – We already know that by the state’s calculations Baltimore City Public Schools is under-funded by $290 million per year, and the Kirwan commission documented that City Schools needs an additional $358 million annually to ensure an adequate education for its students. However, given the economic impact of the pandemic, it is safe to assume the school district is going to be faced with more funding cuts, and we have no idea how long we will be living with COVID. The outsized role schools are playing will likely not change, and presumably will have to be implemented with fewer resources. Which leads me to point three…
  2. We need to show more appreciation for Baltimore City Public Schools’ staff – The Fund for Educational Excellence is an independent nonprofit with a focus on serving the students of Baltimore City Public Schools. One of the ways we do this is by recognizing excellence and celebrating the great work happening in schools across the city every day, highlighted by the Heart of the Schools We, as a community, are so appreciative of the superstars leading in schools and classrooms.

However, today I want to broaden the scope and put a spotlight on central office staff. Over the past few months, I have been consistently amazed with the folks at central office. I’ve known some of them for years, some I just met, but every person I worked with over the past several months has had an intense urgency to serve students during this impossibly trying time. And–due to point one above, they had to quickly learn about topics far from their prescribed jobs, like distribution logistics and installing wi-fi networks – things they never would have expected just a few months ago. And–due to point two, they adjusted to a system that was understaffed by working very long, very stressful hours.

As a community, we need to do everything we can to support our schools. For each of us, that could be advocating for increased funding, donating resources, volunteering (when it is safe to do so), or sending a message of thanks. Together we can uplift our City Schools staff, empower our students, and elevate our City overall.

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