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Howard County parents, students rally outside school board headquarters to call for return of in-person learning

With horns consistently honking in the background, about 100 parents and students gathered Thursday afternoon outside the Howard County Board of Education headquarters in Ellicott City to advocate for a plan to get kids back into schools for in-person learning.

Those who planned the demonstration — organized by the Facebook group Reopen HoCo Schools — said the rally was intentionally scheduled at 4 p.m. Thursday, the same day and time that the school board’s meeting was to start.

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Schools in Howard were shuttered in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, with students learning remotely for the rest of the school year. The school system then developed a virtual learning plan for the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year that the board approved in July. At the Oct. 8 school board meeting, Superintendent Michael Martirano reiterated that the school system would maintain this plan through the end of January. The board isn’t scheduled to vote on a potential return to school buildings on Feb. 1 until November.

The event Thursday saw several testimonials from parents with children struggling with online learning. Stephanie Weiland Knarr, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist who practices in Howard County, also spoke to the crowd about the difficulties students are facing with virtual education.

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“A majority of children I have spoken to don’t enjoy [virtual] school,” Knarr said. “Online socialization is not a replacement for in-person socialization.”

Many of the parents and students in the crowd held signs signaling a similar sentiment. Some of the signs read: “Why isn’t school essential,” “Bring back sports and classrooms,” and “Children over politics.”

Colleen Meyer, an Ellicott City software developer, was one of the three organizers of the event.

“If they plan to open up in February, they should be discussing it now, not in January,” Meyer said.

Meyer, 48, said she and other protesters want to see the school board make bringing students back to in-person learning a priority. She said she wants to see the school system offer an option for families that feel safe going back.

“I got into [organizing the rally] because all three of [her children] want to be back in school, and I can see the toll that it’s taking on each of them in different ways,” said Meyer, who has a senior and junior in high school as well as an eighth grader.

In the past few days, Meyer said she’s received 85 requests a day to join the Reopen HoCo Schools Facebook group, of which she is an administrator. The group that started in June currently has 619 members.

Some parents in attendance, like Darlene Halako, 50, are barely getting by with virtual schooling.

“I’ve never been to a rally ever in my life, and I just thought this was the one thing I wanted to stand up for,” said Halako, of Columbia.

Halako, who has a kindergartner at Thunder Hill Elementary School, said she isn’t great with computers.

“I’m feeling so overwhelmed and responsible for my child failing kindergarten, even though I know it’s not my fault. But I don’t know the computer at all, and I have gotten no help from the school,” she said.

Halako works as a server and said, for working-class parents who can’t be at home with their children during school hours, the pandemic is even more difficult.

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“My mother is 76 years old. She couldn’t turn a computer on if she tried. That’s my support,” Halako said through tears. “Where do I go from here? I’m in tears most days, and my anxiety is through the roof.”

Traci Spiegel, 50, has two high schoolers at Glenelg High School. She came out to the Thursday rally because she said she’s frustrated with the lack of progress in the reopening plan.

“Their peers in private school are going to school and that really makes them sad,” Spiegel said. “My junior said to me that other day, ‘I’m just going to think about college, Mom, because I think high school is over.’ And that made me cry.”

Nearby, Carroll County Public Schools started hybrid in-person learning this week, with elementary and middle school students divided into groups to alternate what days they are in buildings. Anne Arundel’s hybrid model that will bring students back to classrooms is slated to start in November, while Baltimore County plans to have select groups of students back next month.

Spiegel also thinks the Howard school system is not trusting the kids to take mask-wearing and hand-washing seriously.

“We’re not giving them enough credit that they could do the right things,” she said.

At Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, the school board voted unanimously on multiple metrics the school system will follow when making reopening decisions moving forward. The school system is scheduled to present its hybrid reopening plan to the board Nov. 5

“The main goal today is not to get the doors reopened tomorrow. The goal is to force the [school board], and the superintendent in particular, to make the plan,” Meyer said. “We need them to stop telling us they’re going to do it and just do it.”

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