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COVID concerns vs. value of in-person learning: Harford County parents express mixed feelings about return to school

Parents both for and against children returning to classes were on edge as Harford County Public Schools reopened – albeit with a two-hour delay – Tuesday in the middle of the county’s ongoing struggle with the COVID-19 surge due to the omicron variant.

Some parents, like Gillian Miller, were against schools reopening for in-person instruction after winter break.

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“There’s really no reason that the kids should be back in school,” said Miller, who lives in Abingdon. “There’s going to be more infections. There’s going to be more spread coming off of the holidays. The teachers are going to be out; the administrators are going to be out as well. Just do it remotely. It’s safer for everyone.”

Miller and her family dealt with COVID-19 over the holidays after being exposed to the virus by a “COVID denier” family member who hadn’t told them they were sick during a vacation in Georgia. Suffering from migraines, sore throat and fatigue, Miller couldn’t find tests in Georgia, and didn’t have much better luck once she returned to Maryland. She eventually got tests for her and her 20-year-old daughter, both of which came back positive.

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Miller’s fifth-grader at Abingdon Elementary School hadn’t shown symptoms since Christmas, so she returned to school Tuesday after having to quarantine in December after an exposure from someone at her school lunch table. Miller also has a 10th-grader schooling virtually through Swan Creek School, and a senior at Edgewood High School. The senior has been symptom-free since Sunday and will return to classes Thursday after the recently updated mandate of a five-day quarantine.

The school system announced a series of new COVID protocols for the return to school, including the reduction of the quarantine period for people testing positive or in close contact with a COVID-positive person, from 10-14 days down to five. Other updates include no after-school activities unrelated to COVID testing/vaccination, no field trips and no spectators at athletic events.

Harford County Education Association President Chrystie Crawford-Smick said she wishes that the new protocols prioritized contact tracing from unmasked activities, “but as a whole, I think they’re measures to help keep our students in school.”

Other families have had COVID affect their return to school. Parent Katie York and her family also tested positive during the break. She and her husband had their boosters and her seventh-grader at Edgewood Middle School was vaccinated.

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“It’s just like a bad cold,” York said.

All three of them tested positive on Dec. 30 and are quarantined for 10 days since they showed mild symptoms. York’s child likely will return to school next Monday.

While the Edgewood resident is relieved that her family only fell moderately ill, she still worries.

“Just because we’ve caught this variant doesn’t mean we can’t catch it again,” said York, a member of the county’s Parent Advisory Council. “And if it’s mild for us, it doesn’t mean it might be mild to the people we might spread it to. So I just worry about that.”

Students make their way into the building as they arrive at Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston Tuesday, January 4, 2022 after a long winter break and a two-hour delay Tuesday. Harford County Public Schools recently updated their COVID-19 policies.
Students make their way into the building as they arrive at Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston Tuesday, January 4, 2022 after a long winter break and a two-hour delay Tuesday. Harford County Public Schools recently updated their COVID-19 policies. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Mark Nolker, a Fallston resident with a first-grader at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School, has similarly mixed feelings.

“I think it’s great that they’re back in the school,” he said, “but at the same time it’s a little scary.”

So far, Serafina Eskinazi and her family haven’t had any COVID “close calls” from schools where her fourth and seventh-graders attend.

“I feel like that’s going to change,” she said.

Despite her concerns, Eskinazi, who lives in the Bel Air area, said her kids didn’t do well with virtual learning and need in-person instruction.

“The schools, I think, are doing the best they can,” Eskinazi said.

She also noted that not everyone still has the option to move into virtual learning. The application period for the county’s virtual Swan Creek School is currently closed.

“Time will tell if holding in-person school is sustainable or not,” she said.

Doubts still remain.

“I‘m very concerned how we’re going to get through the next couple of weeks,” Crawford-Smick said, “as this COVID surge seems to be taking over all of our lives again.”

Students arrive at Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston Tuesday, January 4, 2022 after a long winter break and a two-hour delay Tuesday. Harford County Public Schools recently updated their COVID-19 policies.
Students arrive at Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston Tuesday, January 4, 2022 after a long winter break and a two-hour delay Tuesday. Harford County Public Schools recently updated their COVID-19 policies. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)
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