The Baltimore City School Board voted Tuesday night to scale back virtual learning by eliminating the elementary grades of Charm City Virtual, despite significant parent pressure to keep it going.
The board did vote to create a new virtual school that will serve grades six through 12 by merging the middle grades of Charm City Virtual and the high school program at Port Virtual. The creation of a new virtual school would have to be approved by the Maryland State Department of Education. Only one other school system in the state — Anne Arundel County — has created a virtual school.
The board vote was seven in favor and two — Kwame Kenyatta-Bey and Ashley Esposito — opposed. One commissioner was absent.
Kenyatta-Bey proposed to make a new virtual school for grades first through 12, but the board voted against the proposal. School staff said the new school would start with about a $2 million budget deficit. Esposito asked that the staff look at finding outside funding for the school.
The school system expected as many as 2,000 students to choose one of the virtual learning programs when they were launched after the pandemic, but far fewer students decided to enroll. About 137 students in grades three through five attend Charm City Virtual. Those programs were funded with federal pandemic relief money that has now expired.
Parents had argued that their children were thriving academically and emotionally in Charm City Virtual. One parent said her child had been bullied at an in-person school and feared returning. Other parents said their children had medical issues and they worried they would be exposed to illnesses at an in-person school.
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.
“This is not a stepping back from virtual learning. We are not doing that, but I can’t bring to the board a model that is not long-term in its current state sustainable,” said City school CEO Sonja Santelises. She said the school system would like to explore adding elementary grades later, but tmust find a way to make it financially feasible.
“We are committed to building it but we need to be intentional and honest about what the cost is,” she said.
The school board also voted to merge Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West, a middle and high school, with Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, a high school. In an unusual move, the two principals had proposed to merge the school, saying that enrollment was so low they could not offer the courses and programs that students needed.
Santelises told the principals that they had been brave to suggest the merger. “It is easy to do stuff that on the surface makes everyone happy. You did the harder thing. ... You have led for your young people. You truly model what selfless leadership looks like.”