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Harford superintendent: Coronavirus crisis ‘underscores how far behind we are’ in digital learning

The coronavirus-forced closures of public schools and the need to move to distance learning online has highlighted how far behind Harford County's school system is as it related to digital learning, Superintendent Sean Bulson said.
The coronavirus-forced closures of public schools and the need to move to distance learning online has highlighted how far behind Harford County's school system is as it related to digital learning, Superintendent Sean Bulson said.(MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County's school superintendent says, "probably like everyone," he has more questions than answers after learning from state officials that Maryland schools would remain closed for at least another month.

“It’s helpful to have some clarity about the next four weeks, but that of course leaves room for a lot of questions for the time after that,” Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson said.

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Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon announced Wednesday that public schools will stay closed through April 24 due to the coronavirus threat, leaving open the possibility that students might still return if the health emergency abates.

The decision requires school systems to reinvent teaching in weeks, a kind of retooling that would normally take years, and upends the lives of families.

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In Harford, the school system has a plan to distribute instructional materials to students for the next two weeks, but is continuing to struggle with ensuring both teachers and students have adequate access to devices and the internet.

"We don't have the technology to deliver instruction" right now, Bulson said.

Because the Harford’s school system hadn’t been investing in a one-to-one ratio of devices to students, instead focusing on interactive and hands-on learning, it now finds itself in a “tough spot,” Bulson previously told the Aegis, as online distance learning emerges as the most effective way to reach students while residents are being asked to stay home to limit the spread of coronavirus.

“Digital learning wasn’t a priority in this community and we need to change that, I think," Bulson said. “This circumstance has underscored how far behind we are and [long term] that’s something we really need to work on.”

In the meantime, the school system plans to electronically distribute a new set of instructional packets for students for the next two weeks of closures.

"The packets that families are getting, they're more robust than what we sent home with students two weeks ago, but they're still generalized to grade spans," Bulson said. "And there is still the expectation these packets are with parents to work with their children on."

Teachers, who were told not to work during the first two weeks of closures, will be tasked with helping administration figure out which families and students can be reached electronically, and who can't.

"The goal is for the teachers is to determine who they can reach and, where possible, where they can provide guidance and support," Bulson said. "We don't know that every teacher can reach every student."

One way the school system is hoping to get a better gauge of who they can reach online is the distribution method of the packets, which were made available Thursday.

The documents can be accessed by visiting the COVID-19 page of the school system’s website and clicking on “Out-of-School Curriculum Materials." Parents will need to enter their child’s student ID number, which will let the school system know which families have accessed the resources online.

“It’s really important for us to be able to know who we are reaching with these types of things, so on the other side of that, we can determine who we’re not reaching,” Bulson said.

"Because you get into this kind of catch 22 of things. It's not like we can post on our website, 'Let us know if you don't have access to technology.' They're not seeing the message. And that's been the biggest challenge every school district is facing."

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In a message sent to parents Thursday morning, Bulson also said hard copies of the packets would be available at John Archer, Fallston High, Norrisville Elementary, and North Bend Elementary schools, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 5:30 p.m., as well as the 19 meal distribution sites around the county.

“Over the next two weeks our teachers and staff will be re-establishing contact with all students and they will begin providing support and guidance to help with the Learning Experiences materials,” Bulson wrote in his message.

The other priority, Bulson said, is reprogramming school system computers for use at home by teachers then deploying them to staff that don’t have adequate devices at home.

“And we still need to find solutions for staff members who don’t have access to internet,” he said. “Obviously there are parts of the communities that don’t have it available.”

Once staff is up to speed, Bulson said the district will then start looking at the various populations of students and trying to figure out how to get devices to them.

Though Bulson emphasized the numbers were just rough estimates, there were at least 125 teachers who responded to a recent survey indicating they needed devices and nearly 30 who said they didn't have access to internet.

"We may find there are more," he said.

He noted that not every teacher may be lacking a home device, but that families may have just one device to share among its members. When everyone is working or learning from home, that can complicate things.

“There is not enough access to that device to do the work they need to do. So it could be some of our teachers who ask for devices are sharing [their personal devices] with someone else at home,” Bulson said.

Beyond the four weeks, Bulson — like many parents and students — is concerned about whether it is realistic to expect a return to school this year. He’s hoping the state will provide local school systems with some guidance.

"I absolutely understand not making the decision about the end of the year at this point, but it leaves us needing to do contingency planning which means we have to plan everything twice," Bulson said.

At Wednesday’s press conference announcing the extension of the closures, Salmon said it is too early to definitely say when schools will reopen.

“We will continue to reassess the situation as we move forward,” she said.

When asked about extending the school year into summer, Salmon said the state will look at “all kinds of creative solutions” in the coming weeks. The state is focused on addressing the continuity of learning first, she said.

“As of now, we’re closed until April 24, but a lot of big events happen in schools between April 24 and the end of the school year," Bulson said. “We’re not going to be able to provide answers around a lot of those.”

Graduations “is probably the biggest one,” Bulson said. “That’s a huge and incredibly important rite of passage for students.”

The John Carroll School, a private Catholic school in Bel Air, also announced it would follow the state’s guidance and extend online learning there through April 24, with the exception of spring break, April 6 through 13.

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“This also impacts all events scheduled through Sunday, April 26, including the originally scheduled date for senior prom,” Principal Tom Durkin wrote in a message posted on the school’s website. He wrote that staff are evaluating alternative dates and venues for prom and will provide an update by April 3.

St. Margaret’s School in Bel Air, part of the Archdiocesan Catholic Schools, is also conforming with the state’s guidance and will remained closed through April 24.

Harford Day School, also in Bel Air, began implementing its distance learning program on Wednesday, according to emails sent to parents and posted on the school’s website, and is also following the state’s guidance related to closing schools.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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