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Anne Arundel Board of Education hears live testimony for first time since March

During a public hearing session, teachers stood outside of the Parham building to protest the hybrid plan.
During a public hearing session, teachers stood outside of the Parham building to protest the hybrid plan. (Courtesy Photo)

Parents, teachers and other school staff were able to speak to the Anne Arundel Board of Education in a public hearing on Wednesday night over a controversial topic — hybrid reopening.

Since the school board pivoted to online meetings, the public has communicated with members mostly over email or sending written comments on board action until Wednesday night with the first live public hearing.

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The board first heard the proposed plan by Superintendent George Arlotto at the beginning of October. Since then, the plan has received over 600 written comments, according to a school official.

As the board considered support of the plan, student member Drake Smith insisted the public input be given greater consideration and pushed for a public hearing for school community members to voice their concerns.

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The first 100 people who signed up to speak at the public hearing were granted two minutes and many spoke about how they did not support the plan to reopen partially in person.

At the start of the hearing, representatives from union leadership for staff, including teachers, administrators, food service and transportation, urged the school board to halt the plan and address health and safety concerns.

“We are asking for clear, and enforceable protocols for a safe and substantial opening,” Helen Wilkerson said asking for clear cleaning guidelines, quality ventilation and worksite inspections.

Edie Picken, the president of the school-based administrators union, said principals are stressed over the hybrid plan as they need time to figure out how many teachers will return and asked for more clarification on the plan for situations like a parent who refuses to pick up a child.

Parents also spoke up about the plan, some calling it disruptive, messy and rushed.

In particular, parents with children with special education services called out the board for a plan many said does not properly support children with disabilities.

Kris Patterson, a parent of two children with special needs, asked that the board reconsider the plan.

“I was very excited when this plan was first announced that it would be something that would be a great option for my kids,” she said but after hearing more about it, she said it does not effectively give students with individualized education plans enough attention.

“It is unfair to my kids, it is unfair to other kids, to expect a teacher to try to get them focused and to learn when they’re trying to address students in the classroom and students online,” she said.

Others asked about the school system call for volunteers, stating that volunteers are not properly trained to support children with disabilities.

Some parents brought up the recent mask requirement that would present challenges for children who may not be able to wear a mask.

Rachel Burke, a special education parent, said her daughter initially lost the ability to spell her name but was happy to have her go back to school for necessary in-person learning when sites for special education initially opened to students, until now.

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“My daughter has an obstructed airway and cannot wear a mask. I’m guessing most involved in developing these plans have never raised a child with special needs, and they fail to understand the importance of these laws," she said, urging the board to reconsider the mask requirement.

Some parents called the hybrid plan inequitable and instead asked that the school system conduct a needs assessment to understand who is unsuccessful online and should return to schools.

Within the first hour and a half, the public voiced concerns with the plan and asked the board to reconsider.

During the meeting, teachers cited schools shutting down in Dorchester County after a spike in the virus and brought up issues like health concerns, current county metrics and overwhelmed work expectations.

One teacher asked about what the hybrid plan would look like in practice.

“My colleagues and I work incredibly hard to create a warm atmosphere of safety and acceptance that fosters our students' education," said James Patterson, a county schools teacher.

"I fail to see how that will be possible, in this environment, where every cough or sneeze can bring about a wave of anxiety, where every slightly sore throat or sniffle will bring about the dread that they may have contracted COVID and may spread it to others.”

During a public hearing session, teachers stood outside of the Parham building to protest the hybrid plan.
During a public hearing session, teachers stood outside of the Parham building to protest the hybrid plan. (Courtesy Photo)

While the school board listened to the public, some teachers stood outside the Parham building to protest the hybrid plan. Some held up posters saying things like, “One life lost is one too many.”

Only 29.4% of elementary school students have signed up to learn partially online and in person when classroom sessions resume next month, county schools said last week. Another 36.9% will continue online learning through the semester, and 33.7% will continue online through the end of the school year.

County school staff are asked to return to school starting Nov. 9.

The reopening plan, adopted by the Board earlier this month, would bring Early Childhood Intervention programs and prekindergarten through second grade back to schools as part of hybrid classes starting Nov. 16, as long as health metrics the plan outlined will allow.

Students in grades three through five will return Nov. 30 in a hybrid format, operating under the same guidelines as the first wave of students. Other students will remain in online classes started in September, although some may move to new teachers.

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