Hundreds of Howard County educators participated in a drive-in rally Tuesday evening to protest the school system 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.
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.”
Jen Johannes, an art teacher at Oakland Mills High 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.”
In late January, Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said all school staff being vaccinated against COVID-19 will not be a “prerequisite” to return to a hybrid form of in-person learning.
Martirano could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
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 1/8-degree turn] that the board did has frustrated and scared our members.”
This story will be updated.