Two weeks into the virtual school year, 7-year-old Blake Steinberg decided he had enough and tossed his Chromebook onto the floor.
“The crying, the frustration ... he just was not having it,” his mother, Sarah, said. “He could not focus on it. He wasn’t learning anything.”
So, Sarah Steinberg made the difficult decision to pull Blake out of his virtual first-grade class at Thurmont Primary School and begin homeschooling him, an added burden for a mother with four other kids in virtual school at home.
During normal times, Steinberg works in the food-service industry. But she had to give up her job to take care of her kids.
Her husband, Nathan, is a nurse practitioner who contracted COVID-19 through his job, yet, remarkably, did not give it to the rest of his family. He’s been working 60 to 70 hours a week, exposing himself to infected coronavirus patients for extended periods, to help make up for some of the family’s lost income.
“It has been a financial burden,” Sarah Steinberg said.
The challenge of balancing work and virtual school days is real for a lot of families.
That’s why Steinberg was in a crowd of close to 50 people that gathered outside the Board of Education’s building in downtown Frederick on Wednesday to protest the board’s decision last week to continue the virtual learning model through the end of the first semester in January.
The rally was hastily organized by Steinberg following the board’s 4-3 vote to stay with the virtual model for now. There will be another on Oct. 20 from 12-2 p.m. at the same location.
On that same day, Steinberg has helped organize a “Sick [of the BOE] Day Logout” that encourages students of Frederick County Public Schools to not log in for their virtual classes on Oct. 20.
All students that participate in the logout event are being encouraged to send notes to their school’s attendance office that they are using one of their five allotted vacation days so it’s an excused absence and they can make up assignments.
“We are going to keep fighting until [in-person] school gets back,” Steinberg said.
Those who attended Wednesday’s rally at the Board of Education building made strong statements with the signs they held up — “We belong in a classroom, not behind a screen”, “Why isn’t school essential?”, “Don’t put my education on mute?” “Stop holding our kid’s education hostage.”
People honked their horns in support as they drove past throughout the two-hour rally.
The protesters feel the Board of Education and FCPS have not done enough to facilitate bringing kids back to school safely. The school system has been unclear about what health metrics it is using to justify keeping schools closed, the protesters say.
“I think they feel that they are not being served, and they are not being listened to,” said Jefferson resident Sue Johnson, who attended Wednesday’s rally and is running for a seat on the Board of Education on Nov. 3.
If elected, Johnson said one of her first priorities would be helping schools to “safely” reopen with mask-wearing, social-distancing and other public-health mandates in place.
“Why isn’t the board meeting every week [regarding reopening]?” Johnson asked.
In order to safely reopen schools, she said, “I will bring my sleeping bag and not leave if I have to.”
Steinberg is not dismissive of the coronavirus or public-health concerns regarding in-person school.
“My husband had COVID. We take the virus very seriously,” she said.
She would like to see anyone concerned about returning to in-person school, whether they be students, parents, teachers or administrators, be able to continue in a virtual format.
“We want to be able to make our own choices,” Steinberg said.
Her children are maintaining good grades as they adjust to virtual learning. But she is worried about their mental health.
“They’re not engaged at all, and they’re always telling me, ‘Mom, we feel so isolated. We feel like we are not learning anything,’’ Steinberg said.
By organizing rallies and protests, she hopes to pressure the Board of Education into calling an emergency meeting and voting to bring kids back into schools before the end of the year.
“It’s going to take time. It’s going to take money. It’s going to take hard work to put these protocols and guidelines into effect,” Steinberg said. “But it’s worth it, and I feel like that’s where they’re on the wrong side of this. They are not putting our kids first ... and we’re not willing to let this generation of children develop this hatred toward school and learning and anxiety and depression that could last a lifetime for them.”Follow Greg Swatek on Twitter: @greg_swatek.