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‘Let us play’: Harford students, parents, protest for fall sports season

C. Milton Wright High School freshmen Ellie Bassham, right, and Amanda Poling hold protest signs with other Harford County parents and students, as the group stands on the CMW campus Sunday, calling for the school system to hold fall sports in addition to spring sports. Bassham spent the summer preparing to play volleyball for the Mustangs.
C. Milton Wright High School freshmen Ellie Bassham, right, and Amanda Poling hold protest signs with other Harford County parents and students, as the group stands on the CMW campus Sunday, calling for the school system to hold fall sports in addition to spring sports. Bassham spent the summer preparing to play volleyball for the Mustangs. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford Technical High School senior Conor Henderson plays baseball for the Cobras, and he has committed to play the same sport for McDaniel College in Westminster, but he still wants an opportunity for one more season of the other sport he loves — soccer.

That is why he and a small group of other Harford County Public Schools students and parents stood along the edge of the C. Milton Wright High School campus, on a chilly but sunny afternoon Sunday, holding protest signs and calling for HCPS officials to institute a fall sports season, concurrent to the spring sports season scheduled to start next week.

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Many motorists heading along Route 543 honked their horns in support of the group as people held up their signs.

Advocates want student-athletes who missed out on their sports when schools were closed for all in-person activities in the fall, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to be able to practice and play when middle and high schools open on a hybrid basis March 15.

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“I want one last shot to play with all my friends, and I think we need it, with everybody being cooped up in the house, just to get out and have some fun,” Henderson said.

Harford’s elementary students went back for two days of in-person learning March 1, and secondary students go back for a one-day-a-week hybrid next Monday. Elementary children will start having four days of in-person learning March 29, and secondary will go back four days a week April 7, depending on the conditions of the pandemic.

The protest Sunday was organized through the Reopen Harford County Schools page on Facebook. Members of that group have held several protests since the summer of 2020, urging school system officials to open schools for in-person activities so children can be with their peers and teachers.

“These kids need this social interaction and some sense of normalcy through their sports,” CMW parent Jennifer Gross, of Bel Air, said.

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Gross, who posted a message on the Reopen page Saturday night urging people to come out to the protest, showed an Aegis reporter a map indicating that Harford is one of four jurisdictions in Maryland that is only doing spring sports — Baltimore City, plus Cecil and Charles counties, also are doing spring sports only.

Gross’ map showed 18 other counties holding spring and fall sports starting this month. Baltimore County Public Schools officials announced recently that their fall season will start Friday, after putting the beginning of the season on hold on an indefinite basis as COVID-19 cases began increasing in the community.

“We’re here representing our kids,” said Gross, whose daughter, Libby, is a junior who plays varsity volleyball for the Mustangs.

Her daughter is “devastated” that her five teammates who are seniors will not be able to play their final season, Gross said.

“We don’t want to sit back and say [to our children], ‘oh, just give up,’” Gross said.

School system officials have faced criticism from parents and some Board of Education members over not having fall sports in addition to the spring sports season, but officials have stuck with the plan for spring sports only so far. They cite concerns such as having enough facilities and coaches available for both seasons, remaining in sync with schools in Cecil County that are part of the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference with HCPS, plus giving students who missed out on all spring competitions when schools closed last March the chance to play a full season.

Henderson, of Harford Tech, said he would rather have a fall season if he could pick which season to play, noting it would be “one last time [to] play the sport that I love” with his soccer teammates before they go their separate ways, off to college.

Teammate Jacob Arcilesi was with Henderson at the protest. Arcilesi, a senior who plays lacrosse in the spring for the Cobras and will do the same with McDaniel, also lamented not having a soccer season. He said it is “upsetting” to not be with his soccer friends after school, spending time together, practicing and preparing for upcoming games.

“I love my lacrosse friends as well, but it’s just a different group,” Arcilesi said. “I don’t want to lose those friends from soccer as well.”

C. Milton Wright freshman Ellie Bassham held a volleyball in one hand and a protest sign stating “let us play” in the other. She said she had spent her summer preparing for tryouts with the Mustangs, as coaches asked players to get in shape in case the school system allowed fall sports, but that did not happen when the school year started in September.

“It was disappointing, because I had spent all that time preparing,” she said.

Bassham’s friend and freshman classmate, Amanda Poling, does not play sports for CMW, but she came to show support for student-athletes.

“I want to be able to see them play, because I know that they were really looking forward to it,” Poling said.

Both are looking forward to their first day in school next week, as it will be the first time they have been in the C. Milton Wright building for classes.

“I think it’s about time,” Bassham said.

Two of Harford County’s state delegates, Republicans Lauren Arikan and Mike Griffith, also came out to show their support.

“Baltimore County is going to move forward with fall sports, and you’re telling me Harford County can’t even be as progressive as Baltimore County?” Griffith asked.

Griffith, who is an HCPS parent and has been advocating for schools to reopen, stressed that the protest is not just about students who could miss out on earning an athletic scholarship, noting that not all students who compete in high school will do the same in college.

“It’s about the kids that play their sport their entire lives, and because of a school board decision, [they] will never get a chance to play their sport again,” he said.

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