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Parent groups in six counties ask Maryland leaders to prioritize reopening public schools

Parents from six public school districts in central Maryland are calling on Gov. Larry Hogan and state education and health officials to give families the option of attending in-person classes.

The organization, which claims to represent 10,000 parents from Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Charles, Frederick and Montgomery counties, wrote to state leaders Tuesday morning, saying that parents are concerned about the “detrimental impact of prolonged school closure on children.”

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“School systems throughout the country, including our own local nonpublic schools in Maryland, continue to stay open and operate,” the groups wrote. “We ask that public school children throughout the State of Maryland have the same opportunity.”

All central Maryland school districts, with the exception of Baltimore City, are currently operating almost entirely online because of the increasing spread of COVID-19 in the state.

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Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties have not been open for more than a tiny percentage of vulnerable students since March.

But on Monday night, the Carroll County school board voted to resume in-person learning on a hybrid schedule starting Jan. 7, after parents offered testimony asking for schools to reopen.

Parents have grown increasingly activist, said Lavanya Sithanandam, a Montgomery County pediatrician and mother of two public school students.

”I think that there has been growing frustration on the part of parents especially the longer schools stay closed,” she said.

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Sithanandam noted that her medical practice has seen a 30% rise in the number of patients they are referring to mental health providers.

“We are seeing the issues become more of a problem than the virus itself for these kids,” she said.

Mary Taylor’s granddaughter attended Baltimore County public schools until she was pulled out and put in a private school because her parents didn’t believe she was learning online. She is angry that the superintendent and the school board haven’t gotten schools ready for students to return.

“The unions screamed loud. I believe the unions are controlling the narrative. It is a nationwide problem. The teachers unions are keeping these shutdowns going,” Taylor said.

Teachers unions say their members are willing to go back when they are satisfied school systems have implemented dozens of safety precautions, including improving ventilation and establishing protocols for handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing.

Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said educators feel disheartened by the attacks by parents.

“A vocal group is demonizing the very educators that are working so hard,” she said.

Bost suggested their anger should be directed to national and state leaders who have failed to provide enough funding for schools to safely reopen.

National polls seem to indicate that parents views are becoming fluid with fewer willing to send students back, she said.

Karen Sparks of Finksburg was relieved that Carroll County schools will open. She said her second-grade son has been unable to concentrate on the online lessons, and his mental health has suffered as a result.

“He is more at risk for his mental health than he is at risk for COVID,” Sparks said.

She believes government officials are prioritizing businesses over children. While her son can play soccer, go to the movies and bowling, and take part in numerous other entertaining activities, he cannot go to school.

“He is not engaged,” Sparks said. “We are talking about a year of his education life gone forever.”

But not all parents want schools reopened, and a competing group of parents, teachers and administrators from Montgomery County has gathered some 4,500 parents’ signatures on a petition in the past several days urging caution and saying that schools should prioritize the health of staff as well as students.

“We can reopen the schools when it is safe for everyone who can cross the threshold,” said parent Becky H. Mayo.

If schools reopen, she said, teachers should be given the choice of whether to work in-person.

Some parents are particularly frustrated that school leaders do not have a detailed plan for reopening buildings for in-person classes. They point to studies that say that the presence of the virus in the community is higher than in schools.

“There is an alarming increase in social isolation, depression, academic failure, learning loss, rising obesity, and inadequate intervention services,” the reopening groups wrote in the letter to Hogan and other state officials.

Parent groups from individual counties have been forming Facebook groups to organize school reopening efforts in recent months. Those groups have now joined together in an attempt to pressure school officials, school boards and elected officials to reopen some schools, or to make plans for the eventual reopening.

The letter calls on the state to “immediately change its reopening guidelines to prioritize school reopening.” Health metrics should not be used “as on-off switches for closure and reopening,” they argue.

State officials have not said when schools should open or close, but have approved health metrics to guide school districts when combined with other safeguards such as masks, limited class sizes and social distancing. Those metrics say schools should consider limited in-person or no in-person classes when the test positivity rate is above 5% and daily new coronavirus cases within the community are greater than 15 cases per 100,000 people. The state is above those levels currently.

Gov. Larry Hogan has pushed public schools to reopen for at least some in-person classes, but has said repeatedly the final decision is up to local school districts.

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