Robert Mariskanish hopes to send his 5-year-old son, Westyn, off to kindergarten this fall in the traditional style: by bringing him to school and having him meet his classmates and teacher.
Mariskanish, of Forest Hill, might not be able to do what he calls “the final hoo-rah” with his youngest child, though, if Harford County Public Schools officials proceed with their current plans to hold all-virtual classes for the 2020-21 school year to protect students and staff from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Westyn is the youngest of three children and is scheduled to attend Forest Lakes Elementary School next year. He stood with his parents and 12-year-old sister, Alyviah, on Main Street in Bel Air on Thursday evening as they took part in a protest urging HCPS officials to open schools for in-person classes for the fall.
“[Westyn is] the last one I get see go to kindergarten, and I think they get better education and more structure with the certified teachers,” Mariskanish said of the need for children to be in school.
He was among an estimated 50 to 60 people who first gathered on Courtland Place in front of the A.A. Roberty Building, HCPS headquarters, and then shifted to Main Street in front of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office headquarters. Protesters, many of whom wore masks, held signs and chanted slogans such as “open our schools,” “put kids first” and “teachers are essential.”
Participants cheered and waved as drivers on Courtland Place and Main Street honked their horns in support.
Karen Schandelmeier, of Bel Air, organized Thursday evening’s protest. She is a parent of two children in the Harford County schools, including a daughter going into the ninth grade and a son going into the sixth grade.
“I’m a parent, a taxpayer that is upset about what’s going on with our schools,” Schandelmeier said before the protest.
School system leaders are planning to hold all-virtual classes for the first semester of the upcoming school year, which begins Sept. 8, and the final version of the HCPS operating plan is scheduled to be presented when the Board of Education meets Monday. That final version must be submitted to the state by Aug. 14.
More than 2,500 students are expected to attend Learning Support Centers in the first semester, according to data from a parent intention survey conducted by the school system. The learning centers will be places where students can gather under adult supervision and take their online classes. More than 38,000 students total were enrolled in the Harford County Public Schools system for the 2019-20 school year.
Harford ‘health metrics’
HCPS officials initially presented a plan for the upcoming school year with three options, all based on Gov. Larry Hogan’s reopening plan for Maryland businesses during the pandemic. Maryland remains in Stage 2, which meant the school system would have implemented a hybrid learning environment that included students being in school part of the week and learning remotely online the rest of the week.
A number of people pushed back on going that route, citing safety concerns for adult staff and the feasibility for all parents to secure child care on days when students are learning online.
Public and private schools throughout Harford County and the rest of Maryland closed in mid-March at the start of the pandemic, and students took their classes online for the remainder of the spring semester. Several private schools in Harford have developed plans to open for in-person learning next year, however.
Schandelmeier described HCPS’ online learning program for the spring as “a complete debacle,” noting, “I don’t know many kids that learned anything at all.” She supports going with the prior hybrid plan for next year.
“The [COVID case] numbers in Harford County are so low that I would be comfortable with the hybrid,” she said, adding she feels her children have been at home “long enough” and the isolation is getting to them.
“I definitely think they would benefit from being in school, even if it’s part time,” Schandelmeier said.
Harford County’s case count stood at 1,906 as of Thursday, the ninth-highest out of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions for total cases, according to the state’s coronavirus website. Harford’s cases increased by nearly 30 from Wednesday, when the count stood at 1,878. The number of deaths remains the same at 66 confirmed and three probable fatalities.
Dr. Russell Moy, health officer for Harford County, has had “frequent discussions” with HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson about the school system’s plans for next year.
“We understand that there are challenges with balancing the benefits of in-school instruction with COVID-19 safety considerations,” Moy wrote in a statement Thursday.
Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have stated that “in-person schooling is in the best interest of students, but only if appropriate mitigation measures can be followed and in the absence of widespread community transmission of the virus,” he noted.
“We are carefully monitoring Harford County’s COVID-19 health metrics every day, including new cases (trending up), deaths (low), and positivity rate (which is slowly increasing) and will assist HCPS with developing the best course of action,” Moy wrote.
Schandelmeier said her daughter, who is going into high school, has reported she feels more motivated when in school compared to learning at home. She said she does have support from members of her family if her children continue with online classes, but not every family has that same support network or the ability to work from home and supervise their children’s schoolwork.
Plus, it is “a whole other scenario” for families of students with special needs who could face additional challenges with their children not able to go to school, according to Schandelmeier. The school system plans to contact families of children with special needs, such as students who require an Individualized Education Program, and work with them to make arrangements for next year.
More information about the community push to reopen schools is available through the private Facebook group Reopen Harford County Schools. The group has approximately 600 members.
“I just want to go back to school,” Alyviah Mariskanish, who is going into the seventh grade at Bel Air Middle School, said during the protest. “I think working on the computers is way too hard.”
Alyviah said she misses physical education class and “all the fun games that we do.” She said she thinks video lessons for PE, viewed online, are “really dumb.”
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“[Students] get more structure in school, and they can focus better in school then they can on a computer at home,” her father, Robert Mariskanish, said.