BALTIMORE — Public schools in the city of Baltimore were closed on Tuesday following a night of violence sparked by the recent death of a black man from an injury sustained in police custody. But keeping children at home to ensure their safety is a decision fraught with conflicting concerns over their best interests, parents and experts say.
Baltimore City Public Schools announced the decision to close on Monday evening, in response to the violence that flared after the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died after suffering a spinal wound. It’s unclear how long the schools will remain shuttered, according to a spokeswoman for the Baltimore school administration, but on Tuesday at least nearly 85,000 students — the majority of whom are black American and qualify for free or reduced-priced meals — were forced to stay home.
“It was the right decision to make,” said Mary Pat Clarke, chair of the City of Baltimore’s Education and Youth Committee. “It was a chance to catch up and begin to turn the tide here.”
Tammie Johnson, 42, a single mother of five from Baltimore, agreed. "I think it's positive thing to do, instead of letting kids run around,” Johnson said. “We know where they are.”
Jeffrey Johnson, 34, Tammie’s cousin, who sat on a stoop just blocks from the Western District police station, where local forces and national guard stood watch, said he saw people trying to overturn school buses the night before. "Every bus they jumped on," he said.
In Ferguson, Missouri, city officials ordered schools closed for more than a week as violence escalated in August last year after a young African-American man, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. They closed again in November as Ferguson awaited the verdict of a grand jury in the case against Wilson, who, in the end, did not face charges.
Frank Patinella, education advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, said such measures could burden parents who don’t have the means to provide alternative daycare for their children. An overnight medical technician, Tammie said she didn't have to take off work because of the closure, but for many other families unexpected school closures are a significant burden.
“Parents depend on schools being safe and structured during the day so when they close schools, what happens to that?” Patinella said. "Are parents home? Have they found alternative care for the kids?"
Finding daycare for children is not parents' only concern. The vast majority — 84 percent — of students enrolled in Baltimore's public school program qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to the city schools' website, and it was unclear how the shuttering influenced the distribution of the lunches.
The Baltimore City Public Schools spokesperson did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the concerns raised about school closures.
In Ferguson, community activists raised money online for the St. Louis Area Foodbank after a days-long shutdown of the public school system prevented beneficiaries of the meals program from getting their food.
Sarita Pierre, a 34-year-old mother of seven from Sandtown, Maryland, said her kids don't like to eat lunch at school, but added she knows many families in the area who completely rely on the meals.
“I know it is a severe amount of families getting their meals from school.”
Beyond these more immediate concerns, there is the broader issue of engaging schools in a dialogue with their students on the perceived structural injustice and racial inequality that surrounds them, according to Amy Wells, a professor in sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“There is an opportunity to turn this moment into something that engages them, inspires and heals them, and helps them think about how to move forward and call for change so that this doesn’t happen again and they aren’t the next statistic,” Wells said.
Schools play key roles in helping students think through the “structural issues related to race and inequality,” she added. “They live it everyday, they know it. How do we construct a curriculum that helps them understand it more deeply?”
Baltimore City Public Schools said it had made counselors and mental health specialists available to their students, according to a statement released Monday, “for as long as it is necessary,” but it was unclear if the students could still access the services on Tuesday.