Harford County Superintendent Sean Bulson said the school system is already in compliance with new standards for virtual instruction set by the Maryland State Department of Education on Tuesday, with the exception of pre-kindergarten.
“The major elements that they outlined, Harford County will be able to address those,” he said. “We are in compliance with the synchronous learning requirements at all grade levels except for pre-kindergarten. So we’ll need to make some changes to our pre-kindergarten plan, which we will do.”
Maryland’s state school board adopted a new requirement for online instruction that requires a minimum of 3.5 hours a day of live instruction by a teacher — also called synchronous learning — and gives school systems until the end of 2020 to put the standard in place.
The board rejected tougher benchmarks proposed by state schools superintendent Karen Salmon — with more hours and a tighter timeline — that had drawn harsh criticism from teachers and superintendents who said she was changing the rules at the start of the school year and upending lesson plans that had been underway for months.
Harford County and the other 23 Maryland public school systems are beginning the year online in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Sixteen districts have indicated that they will attempt to bring some groups of students back to classrooms beginning as early as mid-September.
Harford County Public Schools is among the eight districts that had not submitted plans to the state outlining a return of students to the classroom during the 2020 calendar year. But Bulson reaffirmed that the school system is committed to having more in-person instruction before the end of the first quarter.
“We are welcoming more than 5% of our student population into Learning Support Centers in schools across the county starting on Sept. 8,” Bulson said. “Our goal has and will continue to be to get all students and staff back to school and to continue to ramp up in-person instruction — especially for the neediest learners.”
The Learning Support Centers will open in stages through early October as HCPS attempts to fill all of the open staff positions in the centers. Students at the centers will still learn from their teachers virtually, but supervised by HCPS staff.
On Sept. 8, middle and high school students, along with elementary students who do not have internet access at home, qualify for free and reduced-price meals, are English-Language Learners or those whose parents are classified as “essential employees.”
Kindergarten students who meet any of those qualifications will go to the centers Sept. 9. Elementary students in kindergarten through second grade will report to the learning support centers Sept. 22, followed by third through fifth-graders on Oct. 6.
A draft plan for a return to in-person instruction is largely complete, but staff has been re-evaluating it based on new guidance from the state that came out Aug. 27, Bulson said. Those plans will be discussed at the Sept. 14 Harford Board of Education meeting.
“I’m hoping to have a draft out to the public prior to that, but there needs to be some more discussions internally before we can put something out to the public,” he said.
Bulson said he has been working with the school board and Harford County Health Department “to create a draft of a plan that matches health metrics to those educational structures that would put us in-person, in many cases, prior to the end of the first semester.”
He noted that being able to physically distance students, teachers and other staff in school buildings and classrooms is an important part of the plan.
“We are committed to delivering a safe environment. However, the physical distancing guidance is what makes it so difficult to deliver what people have in their minds for bringing large groups of students into school,” Bulson said. “But we are committed to revisiting in-person instruction and we’ll be having those conversations in September.”
The state board’s proposal requires any school system that has said it will not start in-person classes until the second semester to re-evaluate those plans and submit them to the state by the third week in November.
“We’re on track to beat that deadline by many weeks,” Bulson said.
The reevaluation is an attempt by the state to put pressure on local school systems to return students to school buildings by early 2021. Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan chided school systems for not putting in the “hard work” of figuring out how to get students back.
The state education department posted Salmon’s latest proposal on the department’s website Saturday, but in the hours between then and the board meeting, the state’s teachers union had rallied the support of 20,000 people who signed a petition opposing it. School districts had an Aug. 14 deadline to submit reopening plans to the state education department.
Salmon and several board members said they are representing the views of many parents in the state who want more hours of instruction and the option of returning to school buildings. They said in-person classes are particularly important for students with disabilities, those learning English as a second language and high school students trying to earn professional certifications in Career and Technology classes.
“We were really concerned about the children that don’t learn well online ... the hundreds of parents who said they wanted more direct instruction,” Salmon said.
A move to defer a decision for several weeks lost by one vote Tuesday before state school board members began rewriting Salmon’s proposal during the video meeting as they discussed it. The changes reduced the number of hours required for some students and significantly delayed the implementation.
The head of Harford County’s teachers union said she was glad the state board rejected the initial proposal and the timeline was adjusted for local school districts to modify their plans, but said “this chaos” could’ve been avoided had the state provided guidance earlier.
“This conversation should have taken place in June,” said Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association.
While Crawford-Smick said she was confident HCPS leaders will make the necessary adjustments to meet the new requirements set forth by the state, she asked that the education association be included in the decision-making process.
“HCPS cannot continue to make decisions in silos, collaboration and cooperation are necessary,” she said.
Crawford-Smick also called on state leaders to lead by example regarding an in-person return to school.
“The meeting today was virtual,” she said. “If the metrics show it’s safe for educators and students to return in person, they should be able to meet in person.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.