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Harford school board waives graduation requirements, grade promotion, other policies as it grapples with coronavirus impacts

A handful of polices of the Harford County Board of Education related to qualifying students to complete the end of the school year, as well as graduate from high school, were waived by the school board Tuesday.

The status of the final quarter of the current academic year, which has been upended by the statewide closure of public schools to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, remains an open question as Harford County Public Schools officials craft strategies to not only deliver day-to-day instruction to thousands of homebound students but also determine how they can successfully complete the year.

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“These requests are being made in light of the circumstances of the federal declaration of emergency, the state emergency declaration and the closure of schools ordered by the state superintendent,” Patrick Spicer, general counsel for the school system, said during a school board meeting held via teleconference Tuesday evening.

Public schools throughout Maryland were closed March 16 and are scheduled to remain that way at least through April 24. “We do not know for certain as to what will happen after that date,” Spicer said.

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The 10-member board approved, unanimously, requests to waive policies that govern graduation requirements, promotion from one grade to the next, report cards and grade marking systems and final exams for high school students.

The board also approved a request to extend the deadline for board members and select school system officials to file financial disclosure statements from April 30 to June 30 as well as waiving the policy on public participation during school board meetings in light of the logistical challenges of holding a meeting through teleconference — the waiver only applied to Tuesday’s meeting.

Graduation policy

The policy on qualifications for graduation was a key topic of discussion among board members and HCPS leaders. Students must, under standard Harford County policy, earn at least 26 credits over four years of high school to graduate.

The state standard for graduation is at least 21 credits, which will remain in effect “because that’s state law" and cannot be waived by a local board, according to Spicer.

One credit is equal to a one-year high school course, according to HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson.

“The idea is, not knowing this year the circumstances some of our students will be in with regard to the ability to earn those credits, that will just give us some flexibility,” Bulson said of the policy waiver.

The superintendent noted that most superintendents in Maryland’s other 23 school districts have either brought a similar graduation policy waiver request to their boards or plan to do so, based on a recent conference call he had with his counterparts.

Board member David Bauer asked if he and his colleagues could postpone a decision on waiving the graduation policy “since we’re still figuring out what is happening with grading for the fourth quarter.” The third quarter of the year was scheduled to end in late March, according to the 2019-2020 calendar, but that has been extended by two weeks, ending Thursday. Spring break runs from Friday through Monday, and then the fourth quarter starts Tuesday, according to the HCPS webpage on coronavirus.

Bulson pressed for taking action Tuesday, noting that “having some clarity around what target we’re trying to reach would make it easier for us to formulate a plan” for graduation. Other board members did not express support for postponing the vote.

School counselors started, this week, “scouring” teachers’ records to determine which students are at risk of not graduating, according to the superintendent.

“Waiving this [policy] would allow us to focus on those [students] at the greatest risk of not even meeting the minimum state requirement,” Bulson said.

Board member Dr. Roy Phillips asked if school officials know how many seniors, countywide, are at risk of not graduating. Bulson said he “wouldn’t want to guess,” as counselors are still compiling that information. He noted that HCPS has a ratio of more than 300 students per counselor, “in some cases far more than that.”

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Michael O’Brien, executive director of secondary school instruction and performance, said school counselors and principals are putting together lists of which students need assistance with passing all courses required for graduation by the state, such as fourth-year English.

Many schools design a “spring school” so seniors at risk of failing in the latter part of the year can take a class online and earn a “recovered credit” and graduate with their classmates, according to O’Brien.

Administrators are considering options such as that as a “Plan B” so students who were at-risk when schools closed have an opportunity to pass all courses required by the state. Ensuring students can pass state-mandated courses is the “highest priority” for those administrators, according to O’Brien, who noted that most seniors are expected to meet Harford’s 26-credit graduation requirement.

The policy waived by the school board would apply to courses required by HCPS that go beyond the 21 credits required by the state, such as a fourth-year math, a second semester of physical education and the “career pathway” for high schoolers, O’Brien said in response to a question by student representative Christian Walker.

The graduation policy waiver, as well as the other waivers, were approved unanimously by the Harford board.

‘Heart is breaking’ for seniors

Board members acknowledged the multiple concerns and questions they have heard from parents, students and community members about how the pandemic will affect the remainder of the school year, especially treasured activities for high school seniors such as prom and commencement.

Vice President Rachel Gauthier thanked school system staff at all levels, including food service workers “doing just their level best” to ensure meals are prepared and distributed to as many families as possible, to custodians keeping buildings maintained, plus teachers, principals, school staff and HCPS central office leaders dealing with ever-changing news about the pandemic and adapting to the challenges of delivering instruction to students while school buildings are closed.

She also thanked students for their patience and told seniors that “my heart is breaking for you” over the thought that they could miss their end-of-year ceremonies.

“Please know that we’re aware, and we’re going to do what we can do while still trying to keep everybody safe,” Gauthier said.

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