When her son, Izaiah Carter, was killed nearly a year ago outside Patterson High School, Michelle Hines couldn’t bear to let her other two children go back to city schools in person. So they began attending the city’s virtual school, a holdover from the pandemic.

While most families were more than ready to ditch virtual learning after the pandemic, a small number of families saw it as a perfect fit for their children — and they don’t want to let it go.

Baltimore City Public Schools officials are proposing to scale back virtual learning next school year. They want to eliminate the virtual option for elementary students in a program called Charm City Virtual and merge it with Port Virtual, the program for high school students. It would become one virtual school for grades six through 12.

“City Schools recognizes the potential of virtual learning and hopes to continue offering a high quality full-time virtual learning opportunity for secondary students that can be sustained beyond” the end of federal pandemic relief funds, the school system said in a statement.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The combined programs would form a permanent school that will allow it to offer the basic services a regular school does, such as meals, athletics and health assistances. It would be eligible to receive Title 1 money, federal funding for schools that serve low-income children.

Students in the city’s virtual programs sign on to their computers during the school day and learn from instructors teaching the lessons live, but they can have in-person after-school components, including athletics. Teachers are from a variety of states.

Charm City Virtual currently has 137 elementary students in grades two through five, and parents have expressed strong opposition to closing the program. The school system has said it will work with families to find their students a school they can attend in person that meets their needs.

About a dozen parents, teachers and students turned out for a rally in front of the school system’s North Avenue headquarters on Thursday and then later testified at a virtual public hearing. One school board member, Ashley Esposito, came to the rally and told the group she planned to vote against the proposal at the Jan. 23 school board meeting.

Charm City Virtual parents and students rallied outside the Baltimore City Public School Building on North Avenue on Jan. 11, 2023, to protest the proposed elimination of the program for elementary students. (Liz Bowie)

Most online programs were funded with federal pandemic relief money, but those funds dried up in September. Without those funds, the city and other school districts have decided to limit the number of virtual students or close down the online option. School officials also say the youngest students need socialization with their peers to learn, and they cannot get that level of connection over a computer screen.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Even as enrollment in virtual learning programs has declined, all but two school systems in Maryland have kept some form of online option for students. Enrollment in the virtual learning programs last school year varied among the districts from 14 students to 2,659. Fifteen districts had fewer than 500 students learning virtually.

While Baltimore County is continuing its program for students in grades four through 12 with 36 full time teachers next year, Howard County discontinued its program this school year. Anne Arundel has committed to a full-time virtual school for grades three through 12.

Some students thrive in virtual school

Charm City parents have a variety of reasons for wanting their children in the school. In some cases, students are better behaved in an online class, but many said their children learned better without the distraction of other students. Others had concerns about safety. Attendance at Charm City is higher than in city schools overall.

At the public hearing, dozens of students and parents asked the school board to keep a virtual school open. Students said they have never felt as happy and connected to their teachers, or learned as much as they have in virtual school.

Kathleen Lea, the parent of second and fifth grade students at Charm City, said she will take her children out of the school system rather than go to a regular city public school.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

She said her daughter was spat on and trampled by students leaving the classroom one day. “She is on a healing journey,” Lea said, and is happier and less withdrawn in the years she has been doing virtual learning. Now in fifth grade, she has made progress, her mother said. She was eligible to go to the Ingenuity Project, an advanced academic program for middle and high schoolers, but Lea still won’t put her in school.

TraMeia Wright, another parent of two Charm City students, said one of her children has never attended in-person school and is doing well in the virtual setting. Her son, she said, would have to get acclimated to being in a school setting. She doesn’t understand why the school system wants to take away a school that has support and is working.

Some students, she said, use the virtual school because they have health conditions that make it more likely they will get seriously ill when they are exposed to germs.

But parents also expressed concerns about their children’s safety getting to school and home again.

Hines, Izaiah Carter’s mother, said she is better able to keep track of her eighth-grade daughter’s progress on lessons because she knows what the assignments are and what they are covering in class. Charm City teachers, she said, are in close communication with parents. Because her son was killed as he left school and was making his way home, she said, she has deep concerns about her daughter riding a bus across town to another school.

“I have a larger safety concern with Baltimore City, particularly being a survivor of gun violence,” said Hines.