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Harford school board meeting cut short amid protests to fully reopen schools

A Harford County Board of Education meeting ended early Monday evening, without Superintendent Sean Bulson giving his report, as a small group of parents and students protested outside the school system headquarters calling for a full reopening of schools.

Shouts of “students deserve respect” could be heard inside the board room during the meeting, which was streamed live online.

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Harford superintendents typically give oral reports to the school board, on a wide range of topics, toward the end of board meetings. Had the meeting continued, Bulson would’ve shared with that board that students would not be moving to a twice-a-week hybrid model in December as originally planned.

The rally, organized through the Reopen Harford County Schools Facebook group, started around 5:30 p.m., an hour before the scheduled start of the board’s business meeting. The parents and students plus some Harford County Public Schools staffers affiliated with Reopen Harford County Schools have held three rallies, including the Monday gathering, since August.

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The group has been protesting the school system’s use of online platforms for teaching and learning, rather than in-person classes, in order to protect students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Protesters have shared stories about how their children struggle with multiple technical issues and isolation while learning from home and claim such isolation leads to serious mental health issues for youths, putting them at risk of suicide.

The group of Reopen protesters gathered at the same place they have for past rallies, the Courtland Place entrance to the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air. They held protest signs and wrote messages in chalk on the sidewalk, such as “depression kills more kids than COVID.”

The protesters were mostly quiet for the first hour, however, as a rally on behalf of four Black school administrators, whom participants say were unfairly demoted four years ago, happened simultaneously along Courtland Place.

Those participating in the Justice for the 4 rally, including several local and state elected officials, called for the four administrators to be reinstated and for the school system to commit to hiring more people of color to serve as administrators and teachers.

That rally ended around 6:15 p.m., by which time the Reopen protestors had moved to the side entrance of the Roberty Building. They shouted for schools to reopen, continuing their protest as the board meeting began.

At least one parent also participated in the public comment portion of the meeting, calling Harford’s plan for a gradual return of students to the classroom “the worst plan out of any county in the state.” He described the current situation as “horrible” and chastised board members for not speaking with protesters or answering the questions of parents who contact them.

Protesting continued throughout the meeting, which lasted close to 50 minutes. Bulson said Tuesday that the school system’s head of security walked board members and HCPS staff to their vehicles after the meeting ended, and he praised Bel Air Police Department officers for their presence and support during the protests.

“We have a shared interest in the safety and well-being of the students,” Bulson said of the protestors. “We clearly have different interpretations of how to achieve that ... we disagree about the interpretation of the guidance [for reopening schools] and that’s at the center of the decision making.”

The school system started the current year with all students learning virtually and an initial plan to keep things that way through the end of the first semester in January. Officials are now implementing a hybrid plan, with students being in school one day a week and learning virtually the rest of the time.

Kindergartners through second graders went back the week of Oct. 19, and third through fifth graders are scheduled to start hybrid learning the week of Nov. 4. Students in middle and high school are scheduled to go back one day a week on Nov. 16.

Bulson said Tuesday there had been no discussion to adjust the current format of school board meetings, but noted in light of the disruptive protests that “it is important that we are able to actually conduct the business of the board during board meetings.”

“We do have to be thinking about how we ensure our ability to conduct the work of the board,” he said.

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COVID-19 dashboard

Board members also heard Monday from staff and union leaders dissatisfied with how the hybrid plan has been implemented and calling for greater transparency about the number of people in schools who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The school system debuted an online dashboard last Friday, providing a weekly tally of how many students and staff have tested positive for the virus, how many students and staff are in isolation or quarantine and which schools and departments have been affected by COVID-19 cases.

The dashboard indicates that, as of Friday, Oct. 23, no students have tested positive, but 94 students are in isolation/quarantine. Six HCPS staffers have confirmed positive cases of the disease, and 76 employees are in isolation — 54 schools and departments have been affected as of last week.

The dashboard is scheduled to be updated each Friday, but Kathleen Kruzynski, a library staffer at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air, called for greater detail to be provided.

The names of schools and departments affected, identified by acronym, are available on the dashboard. Kruzynski said officials should name the specific facilities where positive COVID cases have been identified and list the number of positive cases for each facility, “thereby allowing parents and employees to make informed decisions.”

She also called for the dashboard to be updated on a daily basis and urged school system leaders to contact building occupants as well as parents, either by robocalls or email, when positive cases happen in their facilities.

“Nobody is asking for individual names to be released, just timely information on the number of positive cases in specific buildings,” Kruzynski said.

Board Vice President Rachel Gauthier also announced that the dashboard is active and encouraged families to view it for reference.

“We do appreciate how well everything is going with our teachers and our kids who are back in, trying the one-day-a-week for our littles,” she said of the hybrid plan.

Gauthier said she has heard from several friends with children in the school system, who reported that their kids “had an amazing experience and are super, super happy to be back” with their peers, and that their teachers are very happy to see the students, too.

Bulson stressed that HCPS is facing “difficult decisions” as officials work to help students return to the classroom.

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“We all very much wish COVID would go away, and we could go back to in-person learning," he said. “Nothing has underscored the importance of in-person learning like this pandemic.”

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