COVID-19

Baltimore students get a “taste of normalcy” at center for remote learning

Amy Scott Nov 12, 2020
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Christian Muñoz Aguilar sits at his workstation. The 11-year-old helped supervise his four siblings while trying to do his own schoolwork. Amy Scott/Marketplace
COVID-19

Baltimore students get a “taste of normalcy” at center for remote learning

Amy Scott Nov 12, 2020
Heard on:
Christian Muñoz Aguilar sits at his workstation. The 11-year-old helped supervise his four siblings while trying to do his own schoolwork. Amy Scott/Marketplace
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The first thing you might notice walking into John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School in southeast Baltimore — after clearing the routine temperature check — is how quiet it is. On a normal school day, there would be around 850 students inside the massive brick building, reciting multiplication tables and chatting in the hallways.

But today is not a normal day.

“We have a total of 65 students,” said Catherine Drayton-Barber, an administrator of the Student Learning Center now located at the school. It’s one of 15 hubs the district opened throughout the city to serve students from kindergarten through fifth grade who struggled with remote learning. Priority is given to children who are homeless or have parents who have to work outside the home.

Many of the kids at John Ruhrah come from low-income immigrant families and have parents who are essential workers, Drayton-Barber said. “Students who don’t have the luxury of having access to internet,  computer access, a parent who’s in the home at all times.”

Here they have laptops, Wi-Fi, a safe place to be from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., where they can get breakfast and lunch — and support. The classroom staff aren’t teachers. They’re district employees whose jobs got sidelined during the pandemic, like bus aides and hall monitors.

Jessica Henkin is normally a coordinator for early-childhood special-ed programs. She’d been working from home for months when she got the call in late September to come help run the center.

Jessica Henkin and Catherine Drayton-Barber are co-administrators of the Student Learning Center at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School.
Jessica Henkin and Catherine Drayton-Barber are co-administrators of the Student Learning Center at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School. (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

“It was extremely nerve-wracking to be asked to come back in,” Henkin said. “I kept on thinking, well, I just don’t know if city schools, which before COVID struggled sometimes to keep soap in bathrooms, would be able to keep us safe, but we have been just so pleasantly surprised by how they’ve come through.”

There have been a couple of COVID-19 scares, but so far no positive cases, which Henkin said is significant given that the surrounding ZIP code has the highest infection rate in the city.

“I think it does speak volumes to the fact that people are taking it very seriously when they’re here, students and staff alike,” she said.

Inside the classrooms, students sit spaced apart, wearing masks, with clear plastic shields surrounding their desks. At least three air purifiers run constantly in each room. This is still virtual school. The kids are logged into their individual online classes, with their teachers working remotely.

Jenelle Anderson is a proctor in the kindergarten room, tasked with keeping the wiggly 5- and 6-year-olds on track. It’s a far cry from her regular job as a high school hall monitor — “the total opposite of what I’m used to,” she said.

At that moment, one student was doing a “feelings check-in” on her laptop, looking at pictures showing different emotions. Another had brought his Easter basket for virtual show and tell. Then Anderson led a group of girls out to the hallway to use the bathroom one at a time.

“It’s just hard to keep them focused and doing their work,” she said. “They need a lot more than the older ones.”

A lot of Anderson’s job will sound familiar to anyone managing remote learning right now, just times 15.

“Sometimes the links won’t work. Or sometimes they’ll work one day, then the next day they won’t. Laptops dying in the middle of the day,” she said. “Those are the challenges.”

Earlier this week, all of Baltimore’s Student Learning Centers had to send everyone home early when the internet went out.

Christian Muñoz Aguilar, 11, was learning about the recent election in his fifth-grade class.

“To vote, you have to be 18 or higher,” he said. “You have to be born here to be a president.”

Christian’s mom works as a janitor, and when school shut down in the spring, she still had to go to work. Christian had to help supervise his four siblings while trying to do his own schoolwork.

“It was fun, but kind of distracting because my sister would always come in the room and distract me,” he said. “I had to take care of my brothers and log them on.”

Here he can concentrate, and he’s made some friends from other schools. There’s lunch at big, round tables and after-school activities.

“It’s a taste of normalcy,” said Drayton-Barber. “It’s a taste of ‘OK, I have my academic day, and I have my after-school program.’ And you can hear the laughter.”

So far, only about 1,000 students are getting this taste of normal, out of more than 80,000 in the district. About 1,200 more are expected to start next week, though officials recently scaled back the reopening plan amid a surge of COVID infections in the city.

Administrators at John Ruhrah said if there is another shutdown, this time students will be better prepared to keep learning at home. Now many of them have the skills and the experience to log in.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

Give me a snapshot of the labor market in the U.S.

U.S. job openings in February increased more than expected, according to the Labor Department. Also, the economy added over 900,000 jobs in March. For all of the good jobs news recently, there are still nearly 10 million people who are out of work, and more than 4 million of them have been unemployed for six months or longer. “So we still have a very long way to go until we get a full recovery,” said Elise Gould with the Economic Policy Institute. She said the industries that have the furthest to go are the ones you’d expect: “leisure and hospitality, accommodations, food services, restaurants” and the public sector, especially in education.

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

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