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No more packets after spring break as Harford County teachers start delivering lessons again

Harford County Public Schools students should expect to receive instruction from their teachers when they come back from their spring break next week, a crucial change from working on packets provided by HCPS while schools have been closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Teachers are preparing for Wednesday, when they start delivering lessons to students via multiple means such as email, online platforms, pre-recorded videos, even the U.S. mail for families that do not have internet access, according to Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association.

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The HCEA is the union which represents teachers as well as guidance counselors, media specialists, school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists and hearing and speech clinicians, according to its website.

Teachers are “excited to be able to teach their students and carry on with their content,” said Crawford-Smick, who stressed that instruction will not be delivered live via the internet.

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She noted that the packets, which were distributed twice and were each designed to cover two weeks’ worth of material, are “generic” and meant to keep students’ minds occupied during a school closure that has stretched for nearly one month.

“They miss their students and they’re really looking forward to getting back to more of a normal [footing] with their students at this point,” Crawford-Smick said of teachers.

Schools officials have discouraged holding classes live online “because not every student can be online at the exact same time, especially if they’re sharing devices with parents who may be working from home," Crawford-Smick said.

Assignments will be issued on a weekly basis, giving students enough time to complete the work and ask their teachers questions, according to Crawford-Smick.

Packet issues

Public schools have been closed throughout Maryland since March 16 and are scheduled to remain that way through April 24. State education officials instructed teachers to not work during the first two weeks of the closure, as students kept themselves engaged with the first of two phases of activity packets, according to Crawford-Smick.

A second phase of packets was distributed in late March, after state schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon announced that the closures would be extended through April 24. Those packets are meant to carry students through the end of this week.

Spring break begins Friday and goes through next Monday; the fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year begins next Tuesday, and then teachers begin instruction Wednesday, according to Crawford-Smick.

She emphasized that completing the packets helps students earn points toward their third-quarter grades, but they will not be penalized if they don’t do the work. There has been confusion among members of the community about the packets and whether they count for grades, an issue that was raised during a meeting of the Harford County Board of Education held via teleconference Tuesday.

Board Vice President Rachel Gauthier stressed that the packets are not mandatory and cannot hurt students’ grades. They can only help students raise their grades if they want to improve from where they stood as of the final day of in-school instruction March 13.

Sean Bulson, HCPS superintendent, agreed, noting that “because of all the challenges with accountability right now, I really believe it’s time for us to think about learning for the sake of learning.” He encouraged parents and other caregivers to work with children on a daily basis and challenge them mentally and physically.

Teachers have spent recent days reaching out to students and their families to determine the best way to contact them while schools are closed, whether that is by phone, email or U.S. mail. The school system also has on its website multiple resources related to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and how HCPS is supporting families.

People who have concerns can call a school system hotline, 410-809-6336 or send an email to COVID19questions@hcps.org. Bulson encouraged any family who has not heard from their child’s teacher to contact the teacher, school principal or the hotline.

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“It has been, very much, our goal to reach everybody,” he said.

Officials also have conducted surveys to determine the technology needs of students as well as staff and distributed about 400 electronic devices to staff who did not have one at home, as HCPS does not have a “1 to 1” ratio of devices for all students or staff, according to an emailed statement from Bulson sent Tuesday.

The school system also has worked with internet providers such as Comcast and Armstrong Cable to provide or upgrade service for families and communities that struggle with internet access. More information is available on HCPS’ COVID-19 webpage.

Teachers were able to reach more than 90% of students, although with a population of more than 38,000, about 3,000 to 4,000 students had not been contacted as of the school board meeting, according to Bulson.

“This crisis has underscored the fact that the students in Harford County need to have better access,” Bulson said in his statement. “We’re learning more every day that the basic needs of our students today look different from two months ago.”

All regular employees of HCPS, which has a workforce of about 5,000, have received pay and benefits while schools have been closed. Some members of the custodial staff also have been working on a rotating basis to check school facilities and ensure they are safe and secure, according to school system officials.

Crawford-Smick, the union president, emphasized that it is important to continue to educate students, but the community must “do the best we can with what we have right now” and make health and safety the number-one priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, there are a lot of unknowns but it’s time to take care of ourselves first, in terms of ourselves and our families, and just know that we’re all in this together,” she said.

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