As a new school year begins, the Howard County Public School System is launching a fresh effort to reach out to students and parents via social media, inside and outside the classroom.
The school board updated the school system's social media and technology policy in June to encourage "responsible" use of social media within the classroom.
And last week, the school system announced the launch of three social media accounts — two on Twitter and one on Facebook — to serve as links between the school system and community.
The school system's Twitter handle, @HCPSS, has existed since last year, but was used only sporadically to provide updates on school closures and delays. Last week, @HCPSS started tweeting more frequently, sometimes multiple times a day, about bus routes, vaccinations and events, among other things.
Similar posts could be found on the school system's Facebook page, at facebook.com/HoCoSchools, which was created in July.
"Facebook is new for us as a system, and we envision using it as a way to share news, photos, events and other information," said school spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove. "We know many of our parents already use Facebook and foresee it as a great way to foster two-way communication that they can't get from going to our website."
Superintendent Renee Foose also has her own Twitter account, @SuperHCPSS, where she posts about programs, articles and outstanding teachers and students. In the spirit of the new school year, she asked her followers earlier this month to tweet back their fondest first-day-of-school memories.
In a statement, Foose touted social media's power of connectivity and information dissemination.
"Social media is increasingly a primary source of information," she said. "The use of these channels by our system and schools will allow for more constant, and two-way communication with our parents and community members."
The new Facebook and Twitter push comes on the heels of a policy update that acknowledges the value of social media as a teaching tool. Board members changed the policy's title from "Acceptable Use of Technology and Social Media" to "Responsible Use of Technology and Social Media" to reflect that shift.
The policy allows for use of social media sites in the classroom for educational purposes. Teachers must review sites for appropriateness to the curriculum and developmental level of the class. Students also will receive training that includes anti-cyberbullying measures.
Board member Brian Meshkin, who proposed the social media policy, champions "eLearning" on his website.
He envisions using the Internet to take classes on virtual field trips and using Twitter to ask questions to experts in real-time.
"I believe that social media allows us to bring the world into our classroom and allows students and educators to connect with the world," he said.
He also described social media as a good way to curate content, by archiving the answers to frequently asked questions to help students find information more quickly.
Meshkin acknowledged criticism of opening up the classroom to more social media, such as the possibility of cyberbullying and the potential for a different, high-tech form of distraction for today's students. But he said the benefits of encouraging curiosity in students by connecting them with the world outweighed the possible risks.
"We've had horrible tragedies of students dying in car accidents, [but] it doesn't lead us to ban driving to school," he said.
"If you're talking about a world-class education, you've got to be connected to the world," he added.
Amani-Dove said the school system had been impressed by the community's response to the new social media accounts.
"In only a few days of utilizing these sites, we've seen a great response," she said. "We look forward to many great things with our social media."