Harford County Public Schools are putting plans in place to push instruction to students should school closures related to the novel coronavirus pandemic extend beyond March 27, which seems more inevitability than possibility with each passing day.
“I think a lot of people are expecting we’ll be out of school longer,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said Thursday.
That presents a challenge to Harford and other school districts across Maryland. Several colleges had already moved to online only instruction and, on Thursday, the University System of Maryland announced shortly after Gov. Larry Hogan’s press conference on coronavirus updates that it is likely face-to-face classes are done for the year at its 12 institutions.
But public schools don’t necessarily have the same infrastructure to move to remote learning as easily.
“Circumstances sort of dictate the way things go and we’ve been focused on more of an in-person style of learning,” Bulson said. “So this is going to change our conversation … we hope we don’t run into this again any time soon, but the fact that we weren’t in a place to pivot where colleges — most students attending college are using a device — it’s a much easier pivot for them.
“I think there’s a general expectation from people who live in a technology driven world that everyone is able to do it and the fact that we’re not, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but I think it still is in some cases.”
When Bulson was hired in 2018, he did a series of Listen and Learn tours to hear from various stakeholders and one of the big takeaways, he said, was that there was concern about the overuse of technology in the classroom.
“A lot of places where I had conversations with people, what they were seeing was parents were worried about screentime for kids and things like that,” he said. “I was getting a lot of feedback that they wanted more hands-on, more interactive [lessons], not to have as big a focus on screentime while in school.
“And I very much saw the value in that, because when I walk into a classroom and see a few kids sitting around one computer and working together and kind of interacting, that looks like great instruction. But when you walk into a room and see 30 kids all looking at an individual screen, that doesn’t feel quite the same,” he said.
So while the school system hadn’t been investing in a one-to-one ratio of devices to students, it now finds itself in a “tougher spot,” Bulson said, when students can’t be interacting in person.
Surveys have gone out to both staff and to parents of students to determine who has access to the internet or a device at home. Of course, the challenge there is “doing a survey to find out who doesn’t have internet access right now, is the people who don’t have it don’t have anything to respond with,” Bulson said.
Once some data is collected, however, the school system will begin working to convert some devices in schools to give to staff to make sure they have the ability to push instructional content to students.
“We’ll have to do a bit of a triage when it comes to technology. After we deal with ensuring staff has something to communicate to students, if we can do that electronically, our next line is to look at students with special needs first who need something and then expanding the group to other students who don’t have access,” Bulson said.
“With everything, once we have a sense of if we need to push devices out to people, we then have to bring those devices in, reconfigure them to be used on a home network and all that stuff that comes with it.”
School system staff are also trying to figure out if they would be able to utilize television to deliver instructional material to students, and looking into the possibility of sharing resources with other jurisdictions, he said.
In discussions with other superintendents, Bulson said there has been talk about whether the state education department can give each jurisdiction a “minimum threshold for readiness and support.”
“I think we may see conversations about maybe a state-driven learning management system, maybe looking at resources so we can all be on the same page with some of things that drive this type of instruction,” he said. “In this moment, I think that would be helpful for us.”
A silver lining of sorts, Bulson said, is that a lot of innovation occurs during a time of crisis.
“We’re doing things now in the school district that I think are going to help us operate better in the future,” he said.