About 150 Baltimore County residents attended a rally Saturday in Towson to decry extended school closures that they say are harming students academically and emotionally.
Carol Vidal, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told members of Re-Open Baltimore County Public Schools that while children run the smallest risk from becoming seriously ill after contracting COVID-19, “they are paying the highest price.”
“After months of not connecting to school,” Vidal said, “many children have lost all joy. It will affect them today and tomorrow by impacting their academic progress, job prospects and current and future mental health. And the toll will likely be greatest on special education students and minorities.”
She emphasized that she was expressing her personal opinions.
With temperatures hovering just a few degrees above freezing, members of the crowd at Patriot Plaza stamped their feet to keep warm while holding signs in fluorescent shades of fuchsia, lime, orange and gold.
Many of the signs were hoisted by children.
“In the room, not Zoom,” one placard read. Another bore this message: “I want to meet my teachers.”
Each Central Maryland school district with the exception of Baltimore City is currently operating almost entirely online in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19 throughout Maryland.
Though Gov. Larry Hogan has publicly urged schools to reopen for at least some in-person learning, he has left the decision up to individual school districts; Baltimore County schools haven’t been open since March.
One Timonium mother told the crowd that the extended schools closure threw her 14-year-old son into a depression so severe that he took his own life.
Michael Myronuk Jr. was in the gifted and talented program and in his freshman year at Dulaney High School when he died Oct. 20.
“Michael was not good at remote learning,” Heathyr Sidle said. “He couldn’t focus. He couldn’t function. He just gave up.”
Charles Herndon, a communications specialist for the Baltimore County Public Schools, declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Michael’s death.
“The Baltimore County School system is working very assiduously to reopen at the earliest possible time based on metrics the state has provided for resuming in-person learning during a pandemic,” he said.
Speakers at the rally said they’re tired of seeing their sons and daughters fall behind academically while watching neighboring children who attend private schools reap the benefits of in-person instruction.
“We aren’t anti-teacher,” said Chrissy Cook, 39, of Baldwin.
“The teachers are doing the very best they can under extremely difficult circumstances. We just think parents should be given a choice to do what is in their children’s best interests.”
Her 10-year-old son Charlie told the crowd it bothers him that two of his classmates at Carroll Manor Elementary School keep their cameras off for the entire school day.
“In all these months, I’ve never once seen their faces,” he said, “and that’s wrong.”
Other speakers noted that many children have reported feeling discouraged and despairing as remote learning has continued into 2021.
Darren Badillo, operations director for the Baltimore Youth Coalition, described an email he had received from the mother of a student with a learning disability.
The woman, he said, wrote that she wished school district officials could have been in the room when her child told her: “I’m so frustrated today that I’m ready to go to heaven.”
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One woman wrote on Michael Myronuk’s memorial page:
“I have a 13-year-old grandson who’s going down this same path of depression during this virtual schooling process. My son and I will be paying extra-close attention to him.”
The four Kammer boys — 15-year-old Brandon, 12-year-old twins Daniel and Michael and 9-year-old Matthew — spoke at the rally about how the enforced isolation had caused their grades to slip from honor-roll worthy As and Bs they earned before the pandemic. Now, they said they are failing some classes.
They described bouts of listlessness and even occasional crying jags.
“When we can’t be around other people, it just makes it very, very hard to go to school,” Michael said.
Matthew, a fourth-grade student at Mays Chapel Elementary School, said that even though he has three older brothers, “they don’t always want to play with me.
“I am very, very lonely,” he continued. “I am always tired, and I sleep a lot.”