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Hundreds of Howard educators participate in drive-in rally to protest school system’s hybrid learning plan

Hundreds of Howard County educators participated in a drive-in rally Tuesday evening to protest the school system’s hybrid learning plan set to begin March 1.

The protest, led by the county’s teachers union, saw hundreds of cars gather at Howard High School and then drive to the Board of Education building in Ellicott City to continue the demonstration. Educators and community members who attended displayed signs on their cars that opposed the return to school buildings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Colleen Morris, president of the Howard County Education Association that represents more than 7,000 educators, said the protest was to encourage the school board to reconsider its reopening decision.

“Everyone wants to be back with our students, but we want to do so safely,” Morris said. “… The board could choose to go back safely, but they’re not taking those strategies. And it’s a choice for them to send educators back without having us all fully immunized. That’s their choice.”

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Jen Johannes, an art teacher at Oakland Mills Middle School, said she attended the protest because she wants more “respect” from people in the community. The sign she brought to the protest was a picture she drew of singer Aretha Franklin with the words: “How about giving teachers a little respect.”

“My reason is that I’m working harder than ever, and I don’t understand why the public is vilifying us,” said Johannes, 47. “This is my 19th year, and I’m logging 12 hours a day and time on the weekend. But they’re saying we’re lazy and that we’re at home doing nothing, and that’s what hurts. I want to speak out because all I want is a little respect.”

Howard County Board of Education Chair Chao Wu wrote in an email that the board considers safety its “highest priority” when asked to comment about the protest.

“We will proceed with precaution and flexibility to offer a hybrid learning experience for our students of need,” Wu wrote. “We have been collaborating with all stakeholders and will continue to do so.”

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A key issue the union has with the school system’s plan is starting in-person learning before all staff are vaccinated.

“Ideally, all teachers should be vaccinated before we return,” Johannes said.

It is unlikely, though, that all school-based staff will be fully vaccinated before returning to school buildings, which Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano and the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both said should not be a “prerequisite” for starting hybrid learning.

Last week, Martirano said 30% of the district’s staff has received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. On top of the 2,700 staff members to receive their first dose, an additional 1,500 staff have a scheduled appointment.

“I understand that many of our staff members have concerns about their safety as we transition back into in-person learning,” Martirano wrote in an email Thursday.

“This pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty, which is why we have worked carefully ... to ensure that the phased reopening follows all CDC health and safety guidelines. While some of our students have had success in the virtual environment, there are many who need the services and supports that can only be provided in an in-person setting.”

About 85% of Howard County educators have committed to returning to school buildings in March and April, according to a survey done by the school system. Almost 12% requested accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act, while about 3% will resign, retire or take leave.

All 77 public schools and approximately 57,000 students have been learning virtually since last April after the pandemic shuttered school buildings in March. Last summer, the school board approved a plan to stay virtual through February and, in November, it extended that to mid-April.

However, the board was spurred to action last month after Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he would pursue consequences for school systems that didn’t get their students back in classrooms in March. A week after Hogan’s announcement, the board approved a phased-in hybrid model to begin March 1, with all students who want to partially be back in classrooms returning by April 12.

“In the end, all of the [challenges] are going to fall on the employees in the schools,” Morris said. “The sudden 180[-degree turn] that the board did has frustrated and scared our members.”

About 75% of staff will return next week for the five-day-a-week plan for the district’s students who most need in-person learning, such as students with individualized educational plans and those who were invited to the in-person small group programs in the fall. That group of approximately 4,000 students will return for in-person learning March 1.

The rest of the staff will return one week before their students come back for in-person hybrid learning, which begins March 15 with pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first and second grade students. On March 29, students in grades 3 through 6, 9 and 12 will return, while students in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11 will come back April 12.

As approved by the school board last month, the hybrid students will be placed on an A-day/B-day schedule, with one group learning in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will remain for self-guided instruction and homework. The virtual option will be similar to what students have received for the last six months except on a different schedule that will also accommodate the hybrid in-person students. Educators will teach both groups concurrently.

All students will see an increase in instructional time from about 12-13 hours a week to 20-25 hours.

“There are no good answers, but I know hybrid is not the answer,” Johannes said. “But whatever we have to do, I’m going to give it 120%.”

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