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Harford schools superintendent stresses need to ‘ramp up’ improvements to digital learning over the summer

Members of the Harford County Board of Education heard from two parents during their recent meeting, parents who described in detail the multiple challenges they face in helping their children navigate learning from home via a digital format, as schools remain closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those challenges, and the overall need to improve digital and distance learning, are key reasons why Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson wants to “ramp up” training of teachers and other staff over the summer, so they can better use digital tools to teach and interact with their students and relieve some of the burden on parents who are facilitating the in-home learning.

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“We have to make a much bigger leap forward this summer, so that we can deliver a much higher quality form of instruction in the fall,” Bulson said during the school board’s meeting Monday.

Schools have been closed since March 13, per orders of the state government, and teachers began remote instruction of their students in April. Schools across Maryland will be closed through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announced Wednesday.

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The Harford County parents, whose comments were read into the record during the school board meeting, described challenges such as organizing instruction for children in multiple grade levels, balancing work and school commitments, navigating the electronic tools provided by the school system, finding ways to communicate with their children’s teachers, increased screen time for the children, as well as ensuring internet access.

One parent said that she shudders “in horror” at the thought that this situation could continue if schools do not open for in-person learning in the fall because of the novel coronavirus, according to the statement read by board Vice President Rachel Gauthier.

The comments dovetailed with Bulson’s extensive presentation Monday’s agenda on digital learning as HCPS families remain homebound. Bulson said they “revealed within them much of the challenge that we’re facing.”

“The fact that no one thing works for everybody, but at the same time there’s this desire for more consistency of platform and of timing, and of all these different things,” he said.

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Meeting the scale of needs

Bulson stressed that the school system cannot make the transition from classroom to distance learning overnight and that “we’ve never had the capacity to deliver on digital learning at [this] scale.”

Using technology to enhance learning while in school has been a topic of “pertinent conversation” among HCPS officials over the past eight to nine years, “and we see great use of the technology in our schools,” Bulson said.

“But, part of our digital learning work in this district has never included the idea of students taking devices home and of teachers delivering instruction to a remote audience,” he said.

Neighboring school districts might be “farther ahead” in terms of technology available for distance learning, but they are feeling the same challenges as Harford since “this idea of teaching in a setting like this is really new to all of us.”

Bulson recalled a conversation Monday with U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, as well as local officials such as Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, which covered topics such as how computers cannot be a substitute for teachers, and the need to expand access to broadband internet service. The topic of increasing broadband access also was part of a separate conversation Bulson had with County Council President Patrick Vincenti.

“This is something we’re going to have to work on together, to expand that access to broadband, because that’s just one of the many barriers we have confronting us, to really strengthen students’ access to these educational resources,” Bulson said.

The superintendent also emphasized that “the whole point of discussing digital learning is not, by any stretch, to suggest that computers can replace teachers.”

“I don’t believe distance learning can necessarily do a better job than the face-to-face interaction that our students get in our schools with our tremendous educators,” he said.

Several things need to happen so HCPS can ensure improved distance learning, should schools be closed this fall. Those things include “strategic leadership” by the school system and school board, improved professional development for teachers, ensuring students and teachers have the proper devices and access to viable WiFi and internet service, as well as regular evaluation “so we can continue to improve,” according to Bulson.

The school system issued an online survey about digital learning April 28. The survey is available on the HPCS website, and it will be open through May 12. More than 10,000 people had responded as of Monday, including parents and guardians, students, teachers, other HCPS staff and members of the community.

“We hope people will continue to send responses, because the more we get, that strengthens our data dramatically,” said Bulson, who noted he hopes to see more than double the current number of responses in the next week.

Community effort

The superintendent also discussed funding sources for improvements to digital learning, such as money made available for K-12 and higher education through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES act passed by Congress in March.

There also is funding in the HCPS budget this year through the fund balance and surpluses created by spending that did not happen because of coronavirus, such as fuel for school buses. Bulson noted that money from CARES and budget surpluses is available on a “one-time” basis.

Glassman also has fully funded the school board’s request for local funding in its budget for fiscal 2021 — the board must adopt the final budget and reconcile its request with the actual funds provided by the county and state governments. That process is scheduled to happen in June, before the fiscal year begins July 1.

Bulson stressed the need to “manage expectations," even if HCPS is able to make a significant improvement to digital learning, considering the many differences in students’ learning styles and access to resources.

“I feel we have an absolute need to ramp this up very quickly, but we have to be cautious that everybody understands what we can and can’t achieve over this period of time,” he said.

School board President Jansen Robinson emphasized that it will take an effort by the entire community to support digital learning, noting that “this is something that we just can’t do by ourselves.”

“We want to approach this from a community perspective, because I think that’s where we leverage the expertise and the ideas and dollars, if you will, that we can put together to make this effort doable,” Robinson said.

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