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Baltimore County parents, students call on superintendent to reopen schools safely

A group of Baltimore County parents and students rally outside Towson courthouse as part of a grassroots effort Re-Open BCPS calling for safe school reopening.

More than 70 parents and students urged officials to reopen schools for in-person learning outside the Baltimore County courthouse in Towson on Wednesday.

The speakers said they are worried virtual learning is not working for their families, as many parents are trying to balance teaching their children while keeping their jobs. They also voiced concern about the toll that social isolation has on the mental health of their students. The demonstration was organized by a group called Reopen Baltimore County Public Schools.

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“[My daughter] has autism and her needs are not being met,” said Kristen Piscopo, whose sign read “classrooms not computers.”

“Let’s protect the kids with special needs and get them back in class,” she said.

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After Maryland schools superintendent Karen Salmon encouraged all 24 school systems to reopen schools this fall, Baltimore County officials announced in September that schools would gradually return to in-person instruction with select students by Nov. 13. The transition would be offered first to students in preschool and kindergarten and some students with disabilities.

However, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Education Support Professionals of Baltimore County told Superintendent Darryl L. Williams he should reconsider that timeline and abide by a previously established labor agreement, which would keep distance learning in effect until either Jan. 29, 2021 or the end of the pandemic state of emergency.

Williams has emphasized that the timeline will only proceed if there are enough students and faculty willing to return. But on Wednesday, the rally of parents argued that educator unions are impeding the school district’s plans to get students back into school buildings safely.

“I would encourage all of you to read the mission statement of the Baltimore County teachers union and I would challenge you to find where any of their priorities are the future of our children,” said Kevin Swanson, a father of two in the school system.

Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, explained by phone Wednesday that the unions are participating in conversations with the school system about a plan to reopen schools “when it is safe.”

Sexton’s union is also negotiating working conditions for educators and faculty, but she said those conversations haven’t progressed as far as the discussions on reopening. She stressed educators are working hard to ensure fall instruction is more “rigorous" for students than what was offered in the spring semester.

“We know there is a misconception that the teachers union is the one who’s holding up the development of a plan, but that is not true,” Sexton said. “Educators want to be back in schools when it is safe to do so and there can be a sustained reopening."

At the rally, three fifth grade girls told attendees they’ve been learning via computers since March and they think it’s unhealthy. One girl said she’s been getting headaches while another girl said she’s “not getting the education” she’s supposed to receive.

Darren Badillo, director of operations for the Baltimore Youth Coalition, said virtual learning only benefits the school system, which is focused on the “next kid, next grade.” His wife works full-time while teaching their two children daily, and they’ve decided to keep their son from school because he would be “too far behind” this year from virtual learning alone.

Several Baltimore County Republican officials also supported the need to provide in-person learning to students.

“On the behalf of the government, I’m so sorry that we’ve let you down so poorly,” said GOP Del. Lauren Arikan, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. “I’m begging and praying that those who seem to have some kind of secret power over this process will get it together and get our flipping kids back to school.”

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