Decision to hold school in Harford Monday still sparking debate

Harford County Public Schools officials took a gamble Monday and they lost big time, just like the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XVVIII the night before.

Their decision to hold classes on Monday, despite the threat of snow, only to dismiss four hours early and send students and school buses out in the middle of the storm, left many parents fuming, complaining their children's safety was compromised.

A group of parents in the northern end of the county also has revived talk about the need for a separate school weather zone in their area, similar to the Hereford Zone that Baltimore County Public Schools uses for its north county schools.

Meanwhile, Harford school officials still haven't explained why they decided to hold classes Monday, nor have they explained why classes were canceled again Thursday following Tuesday's overnight ice storm.

While some power outages, scattered road closings and icy conditions lingered Thursday morning, main roads were clear throughout the county.

When contacted at her home Thursday afternoon, interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan declined to discuss the decisions and said to contact the school system's media relations office when it reopened Friday.

There's also some question if Monday's decision to hold classes even meets the requirements for a full day of school.

School attendance requirements are set by state law, William Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education said Thursday.

Public schools "shall be open for pupil attendance for at least 180 school days and a minimum of 1,080 school hours during a 10-month school year," according to Chapter 7, Section 103 of the Maryland Annotated Code, which also states schools "shall be open for pupil attendance a minimum of three hours during each school day."

High schools and North Harford Middle School, which start at 7:30 a.m., dismissed at 10 a.m. (just 30 minutes after the last elementary students arrived at their schools); middle schools, which start at 8:15 a.m., and the John Archer School dismissed at 10:45 a.m.; elementary schools, which start at 9 a.m., and pre-K dismissed at 11:30 a.m.; and fourth tier schools, which start at 9:30 a.m., dismissed at noon.

That made for a 2 1/2 hour school day Monday.

"It is a modified dismissal schedule," HCPS spokeswoman Lindsay Bilodeau explained Monday afternoon. "When we did our evaluation this morning, it was just rain and the forecast showed it would continue as such until mid-day. Our decision was based on the conditions at the time. However, the line of the storm clipped the North Harford area and they got a burst of snow. We decided to re-evaluate and close because the forecast indicates the line of snow will continue to move east."

Reinhard said the Harford school system will have to contact MSDE to receive clarification on whether Monday will be considered a school day. With the harsh winter, he said MSDE is trying to be fair with each school system, while taking into account the education of Maryland students.

Reinhard said the Code of Maryland Regulations makes a distinction that high school students must complete a minimum of 1,170 hours in a school year, while elementary and middle school students must attend the 1,080-hour minimum.

Early lunch

Monday's decision to hold classes also raises the question just what was accomplished during the less than three hours most students spent at their schools.

As students trooped out of Bel Air Elementary School, one of the last to close Monday because of its fourth-tier schedule, most seemed happy to be leaving.

Sasha Vanpee, a fifth-grader who was met by her father, Pascal, said she had her morning classes and ate lunch at 9:45 a.m.

"When I [normally] have it at one o'clock, that's an early lunch," she told her father.

As he walked Sasha and her brother, Quinn, 7, toward a commercial parking lot near the school where he had parked, Pascal Vanpee, who is a school bus driver, said he expected the early dismissal as weather conditions worsened.

"It's getting more dangerous," he said. "This morning was perfectly fine to drive."

He noted he had dropped special-needs students off at John Archer School east of Bel Air and turned around to pick them up a short time later.

"It's fine," he said. "I'm sure some parents won't understand."

"I like all the snow because it makes school canceled!" Maggie Donahue, 7, gushed as she walked along East Lee Street with her family Monday afternoon.

The second grader, along with her 6-year-old sister, Annie, who is in kindergarten, walked with their mother, Colleen Donahue, who pulled her two younger children, 3-year-old Fin and 1-year-old Nolan, in a plastic sled through the driving snow. Meanwhile, buses trundled up to the front entrance of the school and Bel Air police officers and school staffers monitored traffic.

"I'm a stay-at-home mother; it's easier for me to adjust than it would be for working parents," Donahue said of the early dismissal.

Northern zone talk

Parents in northern Harford County have flooded a Facebook group, North Harford School Zone Petition To HCPS, with reports and photos of incidents involving school buses that ran off the road or were stuck in the snow.

Area parents have asked school officials in the past to establish a zone in that area for inclement weather days, putting those schools on a different schedule than those in the central and southern part of the county, where the weather is typically milder. Those requests have been denied.

"We're lucky that people didn't get hurt or killed yesterday," County Councilman Chad Shrodes, who lives in Norrisville in northwestern Harford and is listed as an administrator of the Facebook group, said Tuesday. "We're very fortunate; this was a wake-up call."

The group was created Monday and had 2,323 members by 2 p.m. Thursday.

Bilodeau, the HCPS spokesperson, said via e-mail Tuesday that school officials had studied the possibility of creating a zone several years ago, but the study, based on data such as weather, precipitation and school attendance patterns, "was not conclusive for establishing a separate zone for the northern part of our county."

Aegis staff member Bryna Zumer contributed to this article.

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