A group of Harford County Public Schools parents, advocating for ending virtual learning and allowing their children to go back to their schools, gathered outside the HCPS headquarters building in Bel Air on a drizzly Monday evening.
Their protest coincided with another rally by teachers and their union supporters who want to ensure schools are safe for students and staff as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, but Harford school system officials are preparing to have some students go back to the classroom next week. HCPS staff returned to work on Monday.
The parents and students, who were joined by representatives of advocacy groups calling for local and state governments to allow businesses and schools to reopen fully after being shut down during the pandemic, stood along Courtland Place and South Hickory Avenue holding protest signs. Others stood at the top of the steps to the Courtland Place entrance to the A.A. Roberty Building, speaking to a crowd of at least 50 people.
“Coronavirus has affected our children in many different ways — it has affected them educationally, socially and psychologically,” said Bel Air resident Karen Schandelmeier, mother of two children in sixth and ninth grade, respectively.
Schandelmeier is the founder of the Reopen Harford County Schools group on Facebook. She worked with parents to organize a protest against virtual learning in early August.
Participants in Monday’s protest gathered at 5:30 p.m., an hour before the scheduled 6:30 p.m. start of the Board of Education’s business meeting. Shortly after 6 p.m., a vehicle caravan organized by the Harford County Education Association came through with car horns blaring.
The local teachers’ union has been advocating on behalf of educators who want to continue teaching virtually out of concern for their safety and are seeking accommodations from the school system under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"HCPS has chosen to use unfair bullying tactics to force employees who have applied for ADA accommodations to either return to work, resign, or take leave,” Chrystie Crawford-Smick, the union president, stated in a press release issued before the rally.
Union members and their supporters want HCPS to “respect educators by providing clear, consistent and timely communication, response to our concerns about safety protocols and realistic workload expectations,” according to the press release.
The car caravan, which started at Bel Air High School, threaded along Courtland Place and down Hickory Avenue and looped back around a number of times, with the drivers laying on their horns. Bel Air Police officers stood across Courtland, watching as parents waved their signs and shouted at the people in the vehicles, telling them things such as “shame on you,” and “you should be embarrassed!”
A conflict also happened involving a woman standing in the midst of the crowd of parents, holding a sign calling for a “realistic workload, expectations, clear and consistent communication, professional respect, transparency about COVID cases — in solidarity, HCEA.”
The woman argued with some of the parents, telling them to keep 6 feet away from her, and she also competed for the attention of the car caravan with another woman protesting on behalf of the parents and carrying a sign expressing support for the statewide advocacy group Return2Learn Maryland Schools. Each woman jogged along Courtland, holding her sign in front of the other’s.
Protest not against teachers
One participant in the parents' protest, Stella Peterson, had a heated exchange with one occupant of a car turning onto Hickory. The occupant stressed that the teachers should not be blamed for the challenges facing students, that parents should direct their ire toward school system leaders.
“Our intention was never to protest against the teachers,” Peterson said later. “We want our children to have a safe and decent education; they’re falling behind, they’re struggling.”
The Bel Air resident, who has a son that graduated from high school in Harford County earlier this year and also has grandchildren in HCPS, said the teachers' union supporters “hijacked our protest.”
“It was intended to make a statement to the Board of Education, that they have to do a better job,” she said.
The majority of the school system’s more than 38,000 students have been learning virtually from home since the school year began Sept. 8, with the remainder being bused to Learning Support Centers so they can be in a safe location with reliable internet access.
The protests happened the day Harford teachers and staff were scheduled to return to schools, one week before children in kindergarten through second grade go back to school in a one-day-a-week hybrid plan. It is the first step in the HCPS administration’s plan to bring students back to the classroom on a gradual basis through the fall.
“Children and families have struggled with virtual learning and have been subjected to all kinds of frustrations, and this latest attempt at a plan will only add to the frustrations,” Schandelmeier said of the hybrid plan.
She noted how local private schools such as Harford Day School and St. Margaret School, both in Bel Air, have been able to have their students in school safely. At the same time, some HCPS families are dealing with challenges such as having to work full time and supervise their children’s virtual education, not having devices promised by the school system, unreliable home internet access and problems connecting to online platforms used by the Harford schools including Microsoft Teams and Itslearning, according to Schandelmeier.
“When we first learned of the virus, we recognized the fact that it was necessary to change many things in our lives in order to stay safe — that was understandable,” she said. “We now know so much more about the virus and what individuals need to do to protect themselves.”
Schandelmeier’s 11-year-old son, Jonah Buckleman, who is in the sixth grade, expressed frustration with virtual learning. He noted how some of his classmates are falling behind in their school work because they get “kicked out” of class meetings on Microsoft Teams.
“It’s unorganized, and it’s not really fair because some people can’t get into the meetings,” Jonah said.
Street resident Tara Hough and her 5-year-old daughter, Lily, both stood along Courtland holding protest signs.
“I want to learn math!” exclaimed Lily, who started kindergarten this year and is learning virtually.
Hough said she is a working single mother and must pay to put her daughter in a private day care. Lily and the other children have access to a computer, but not an HCPS staffer who can assist them with their virtual lessons.
She has not put Lily in a Learning Support Center because before and after care was not available through the centers, as of the time she had to let HCPS know whether or not she wanted to enroll her daughter in the center.
“I’m spending hours of my time after work checking off her school work, answering the accountability questions for the lesson,” Hough said.
She said virtual learning is not suitable for her daughter because Lily is too young to use a computer or to read the instructions for the virtual lessons.
“She’s been screen free her entire life,” Hough said. “I intentionally raised her that way.”
Jarrettsville resident Aaron Hankins said virtual learning “has gone fairly smoothly” for his elementary school-age child, who recently secured a spot in a learning center, although the online classes are “not without hiccups.”
“There’s only so much that can be done from home,” he said.
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Hankins said he came out to protest because of what he called “a lack of communication, from the superintendent and the administrative staff of the school system, all the way down to the classroom.”
“I want to see transparency; I want to see forward progress,” he added.
A ‘common enemy’
Shelby Gore, a senior at North Harford High School who is on the swim team, a member of the school choir and participant in the Natural Resources and Agricultural Science magnet program, was the final speaker before the protest wrapped up shortly after 7 p.m.
Gore said her statistics teacher asked Monday how many students in the class are satisfied with online learning on a scale of one to 100. More than half of Gore’s class, including seniors, juniors and sophomores, said “zero.”
“We are fed up,” Gore said. “High schoolers are fed up with what’s happening — we want to enjoy our sports, we want to enjoy our extracurriculars.”
She stressed that her teachers at North Harford have been “relentless” throughout the closure of schools and have “treated me and my classmates with the utmost respect, and that’s what we deserve.” The “common enemy” of parents and teachers is the HCPS leaders “in there,” she said, pointing to the Roberty Building behind her.
“Those people are the ones mistreating teachers, parents and the students who they are supposed to care so, so desperately about,” Gore said.