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Thousands sign petition created by students asking for a return to virtual learning in Howard County

Thousands of people signed an online petition created by Howard County Public School System students urging school officials to return to virtual learning amid a surge in COVID-19 cases locally and nationwide.

Created early this week, the petition as of Thursday had received more than 7,600 signatures toward its goal of 10,000.

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The petition is addressed to Superintendent Michael Martirano and the Howard County Board of Education.

“We are HCPSS students, and we’re telling you that it’s time to go virtual until this surge is over,” it states.

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The petition cites Maryland Department of Health data and New York Times COVID-19 dashboard information to bolster its message: “Cases are higher than they have been at any other point so far in this pandemic. As of January 3rd, we’ve had 14,251 cases and ... there are 2,746 Marylanders in the hospital and 43 of them are kids. [Nine] people in Howard County have died in the last two weeks. Our hospitals are overwhelmed, and we’re one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots.”

The petition calls for the school system to move all public school classes to online learning until the surge in COVID-19 cases has ended.

“Dr. Martirano and members of the Board of Education: If even a single student in HCPSS ends up in the hospital, faces long-term effects of COVID-19 for months or years, spreads COVID-19 to a vulnerable loved one, or dies: it’ll be your fault,” the petition states.

Tori Yi, 16, a sophomore at Marriotts Ridge High School, was one of the first 100 signers of the petition and has been sharing it at school and on social media.

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She said she wants the school system to move to virtual learning because some students feel unsafe in school.

“We really need to prioritize our students’ health over their education at the moment,” she said. “Going virtual will allow everyone to realistically participate in class and stay on top of things because missing school for a week or two weeks is completely detrimental.”

As of Thursday, there were 788,965 confirmed coronavirus cases and 11,809 confirmed deaths in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

This week, 49 positive cases were reported in Howard County elementary, middle and high schools and offices, according to the HCPSS COVID-19 dashboard.

Howard County Board of Education member Chao Wu said the school system has not made any plans to move to virtual instruction. Any future plans to do so would be made on a case-by-case basis, Wu added.

“We are prepared, but we don’t want to put the whole school system in one decision, we want to look at it school by school,” he said.

Wu said moving to virtual learning is not a simple decision.

“Virtual has been a top choice for a lot of kids and puts a lot of mental pressure on some kids and the transition back and forth is not easy as well,” he said. “There are so many factors to consider and we would like to work together with every stakeholder to get us through this omicron [variant].”

HCPSS officials opted to continue in-person learning after winter break. Schools were closed Monday and Tuesday due to inclement weather, but students and staff returned to classes in person on Wednesday.

In a message to families before winter break, Superintendent Michael Martirano wrote that the school system is prioritizing in-person instruction.

“Our focus continues to be on keeping school buildings open for instruction, even if that means temporarily suspending other activities in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus,” he wrote. “Closing school buildings is the last resort.”

In the weeks leading up to winter break, the school system canceled a number of after-school activities including athletic games and practices, field trips, musical performances and theater rehearsals as COVID-19 cases rose.

However, the system made an adjustment to that policy Tuesday that allows schools to resume activities if they meet certain criteria. The release said extracurriculars with 25 or more participants will pause in-person activities when the current number of positive cases associated with that activity is five or more, and activities with less than 25 participants will pause when there are three or more cases. Activities can resume when fewer than five or three students, respectively, who tested positive are still in isolation.

Since the start of the school year, the school system also has implemented a number of mitigation strategies to keep staff, students and teachers safe including requiring masks for all staff, students and visitors in schools regardless of their vaccination status, requiring staff to show proof of full vaccination or undergo regular testing and installing HEPA filters in cafeterias, classrooms and other common spaces.

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