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Howard County educators react to anti-teacher rhetoric online amid school system’s virtual learning decision

Earlier this month, shortly after the Howard County Board of Education approved online learning for county students through at least January, Jessica Nichols, like many, went to social media to see what people thought.

Nichols, a social studies teacher at River Hill High School in Clarksville, visited community groups on Facebook, where she saw a few people criticizing teachers for the decision the school system and the Board of Education made.

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“I was someone who was active in a couple of online forums with people from Howard County, and I stopped being active when someone called me ‘lazy’ and [said] that I didn’t want to do my job,” said Nichols, who has taught in Howard County for seven years. “I brought up a couple of things I was concerned about as a teacher, like [personal protective equipment] for staff and students, and I was called ‘lazy’ for that.”

In the days since the board’s decision to go virtual through the first semester — a choice that many school systems in the state have made amid the coronavirus pandemic — anti-teacher rhetoric online has increased. The community Facebook groups, which normally consist of educational discussion and outreach along with political opinions and emotional rhetoric, were home to most of the comments about educators in the county. Some posts were later deleted by group moderators, while others had comments turned off.

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“I absolutely get offended,” said Wendy Strawhorn, a Gifted and Talented resource teacher at Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia. “I don’t think people take the time to understand what it’s like to be a teacher. I will go down the rabbit hole and read the comments, but I try not to comment. I don’t think you can fix ‘crazy,' and I don’t think you can change peoples’ opinions.”

Most of the comments were minor, like calling teachers “lazy” or “snowflakes,” referring to a slang term for people easily hurt by insults or those with a seemingly unwarranted sense of entitlement. Others hoped or cheered for possible layoffs or furloughs of educators, sometimes in conversation with a teacher in the thread.

“Maybe they’ll be interested in going back once they’re furloughed,” one user wrote.

“Just wait when they start firing [teachers] when the district realizes it doesn’t need them, just the little videos they make,” wrote another.

“It is disheartening that there would be any animosity or ill will directed at our teachers. Our entire staff have been put in a very difficult situation,” schools Superintendent Michael Martirano wrote in an email in response to questions.

“After years of accreditation, training and classroom experience that is focused on the traditional model of in-person instruction, our teachers were asked in the spring to immediately pivot to a model they were unfamiliar with. They did a phenomenal job of doing what they were asked to do as part of [the spring] plan that we knew would not be comparable to in-person instruction.”

While some of the online comments about the county system’s reopening plan were about teachers, most were about other topics regarding the decision. In the nearly two weeks since the decision to go virtual through January, parents have been concerned about how to work their own jobs, help their children navigate online learning and also ensure the education their kids are receiving is sufficient.

“People have a tendency to need a place to put blame, and it’s not always directed in the right place,” said Strawhorn, who has been a teacher for 27 years. “Teachers are the easy target when parents are frustrated. I understand where it’s coming from, but I obviously don’t agree with it.”

The decision to teach students online this fall was made in conjunction with a two-week delay to the start of the school year, a purchase of more Chromebook laptops to better facilitate a distance learning model, and the plan to switch to a semester-based schedule with four classes per semester for middle and high school students for the 2020-21 academic year.

Earlier this month, the school system collected data from a survey of nearly 40,000 parents, teachers and students. A plurality among all three groups said they prefer a hybrid model over fully in-person or fully online models. However, around 65% of teachers who responded to the survey said they were concerned about their own safety.

At the school board’s meeting July 16, Martirano said approximately 11% of the school system’s staff are age 60 or older, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites as the age of higher risk for contracting COVID-19. He also said about 35% to 45% of the school system’s nearly 59,000 students have one or more medical diagnoses, while 15% to 20% of students have a chronic health condition and could be at higher risk if they contract the coronavirus.

“Educators are frustrated and disappointed not to be returning to the classroom, but the reason we are unable to do so is because the public health conditions are not safe and we do not have the funds to ensure adequate safety,” Colleen Morris, president of the Howard County Education Association, wrote in an email in response to questions.

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“We [students, parents, educators] will all be excited to go back as soon as conditions are safe. It will help to open our school[s] sooner if we can fight the virus and get funding. Loss of learning can be made up but loss of life cannot.”

“Teachers want to teach, and we really miss our kids,” Nichols said. “We miss the educational environments and being able to interact with our kids on a daily basis. But we want it to be safe. We don’t want to mourn the loss of our colleagues or our students. Until we as a society get a hold on this, schools aren’t safe spaces.”

Nichols and Strawhorn both said they believe one of the reasons for the increased animosity toward teachers is because of how online learning was conducted in Howard County this past spring. After schools closed March 13, the Howard County school system took more than a month to launch its virtual learning program. That program was criticized by some as not having enough content instruction.

A majority of parents responded in the school system’s survey that they prefer more instruction and more live meetings if an online model were to be chosen for the fall. During the school board meeting July 16, Christina Delmont-Small, the lone board member to vote against the virtual model, said the school system “failed” its students and teachers in the spring.

Nichols said she understands why the distance learning model wasn’t polished in the spring but also believes the communication with parents could have been better.

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“I think the school district did a great job of taking care of the kids’ social-emotional needs,” Nichols said. “But our parents have come to expect a level of rigorous education from the schools. When they saw our focus had shifted without the appropriate messaging, I think parents found it confusing.”

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In preliminary models released by the school system, students will receive between 12 and 16 hours of live instruction with teachers per week, while also completing additional self-guided work. In the spring, elementary students received one hour of live learning per week while secondary students received three-and-a-half hours of live instruction on top of assignments to do on their own. When schools functioned normally before the coronavirus, students received about 24 to 30 hours of in-school learning a week.

“The virtual instructional model that will be implemented this fall will be far more robust than the spring and our educators will be much better prepared to deliver instruction virtually,” Martirano wrote in the email. “Will it be flawless? Of course not. Unfortunately, a virtual delivery model will never be able to mirror an in-person model. However, our educators are phenomenal professionals, and I have great confidence that they will do everything for our children that is asked of them.”

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