Harford schools superintendent reviews COVID-19 recovery plan about learning in the fall with Board of Education

Harford County Public Schools officials do not currently have what Superintendent Sean Bulson called “a perfect answer” to the many questions parents, teachers and HCPS support staff have regarding how schools will operate in the coming academic year — ensuring students receive a proper education and that students and staff are protected from COVID-19.

But there are multiple teams composed of people in the school system and members of the community who are working to deliver as many answers as possible and put forth a formal recovery plan before the 2020-21 school year starts in early September, he said.


“We may agree around our dislike for COVID-19 — right after that we start disagreeing, and there are many places where we have very strong opinions,” Bulson said as he presented the current recovery plan to members of the Harford County Board of Education Monday evening.

The school system released a draft version of its Continuity of Learning 2.0 Recovery Plan late last week, with a final version slated to be released in August. The draft plan includes three options for how schools will operate next year.


The superintendent and other school system leaders will host an online town hall for the public regarding the draft recovery plan at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. People can view the town hall through Microsoft Teams and submit questions via email to HCPSTogether@hcps.org.

The options include all-virtual learning, which was the operating method for the spring; schools being open with the option of taking classes virtually; or a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes, with students in school part of the week and learning virtually the rest of the week.

The phase in which Harford schools start the next academic year depends on how the pandemic is affecting Maryland and Harford County, and whether the county and state are in the first, second or third phase of recovery based on Gov. Larry Hogan’s Roadmap to Recovery. The state and county have been in Stage 2 of recovery since mid-June, meaning schools would employ a hybrid operating method if nothing changes.

Students would be divided into “cohorts,” or small groups that meet with their teacher on alternating days if the second-stage hybrid option is in place, according to the plan.

“This plan is very much a draft,” Bulson said.

The superintendent plans to release an interim version in early August and then present a final version at the next school board meeting on Aug. 10; HCPS must submit the plan to the state by Aug. 14. “You’ll see the growth of the plan in the next couple of weeks,” Bulson told board members.

New teachers report Aug. 27 and 28, and then all teachers must be on hand for professional development from Aug. 31 through Sept. 4. Classes begin for students in kindergarten through 12th grade Sept. 8 and Sept. 10 for children in pre-kindergarten, according to the calendar for the 2020-21 school year.

“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge to build schedules,” said Bulson, who noted that officials must put together three master schedules tailored for each stage of the recovery plan between now and the end of August.

The school system will be sending a survey to teachers this week seeking information about their comfort levels about working with students in person or virtually, how comfortable they are with using distance-learning technology and helping them make arrangements to obtain care for their own children during the work day.

Officials also plan to send, in the coming weeks, a survey to families, with a “key question” on whether parents plan to allow their children to go back to school or if they want to continue with virtual learning. Bulson emphasized that the virtual option will be available at all three stages.

“Throughout this plan, HCPS intends to allow families to choose to have their students remain fully virtual, as long as they feel they need to do that,” he said.

The recovery plan has been created with four foundational elements in mind, including equity, meaning all students have equitable access to resources — including internet service.


The other elements involve ensuring support services are provided to students with special needs and their families, providing regular support for HCPS staff, students and families in the areas of curriculum and technology. All teachers and students in kindergarten through 12th grade will receive devices for online instruction, plus officials will provide “multiple opportunities” for public input during the recovery planning process.

“Remote learning cannot replace students’ experiences with their teachers, administrators, and support staff,” Karen B. Salmon, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, said in her introductory message in the draft Maryland Together: Recovery Plan for Education, a 73-page State Department of Education resource guide for local school districts as they plan for the next year.

“All of the students and educators with whom I have spoken have greatly missed the daily interactions that can only be experienced in classrooms and schools,” Salmon continued. “We must all unite in our efforts to maintain equitable learning opportunities and safely return students to their schools.”

Bulson noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics has released guidance encouraging policy makers plan for the coming year with a goal of having students be in their schools, considering the many academic, emotional and social benefits of being around their peers and teachers. He also noted that AAP officials “clearly start from the fact that we need to consider safety first.”

Harford school leaders cannot guarantee that all students and staff will be 100% safe should they return for in-person learning, that “our best hope is to mitigate risk,” and leaders must find a balance between protecting people from the coronavirus and ensuring students get all the benefits of an education, according to Bulson.

Community concerns

The school board received multiple comments from the public Monday, with some people supporting a return to in-person school.


Others expressed concerns for the safety of teachers with underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19; how regular cleaning and sanitizing of school buildings and the many items touched throughout the day, such as desks, will be handled; how teachers and staff can ensure students, especially younger children, will adhere to mask-wearing policies, plus how HCPS will handle things if students or staff test positive for COVID-19.


“As much as teachers and educational support professionals want to see students’ faces in September and have a traditional start to the 2020-2021 school year, we cannot ignore the serious health and safety risks that that could create,” Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, stated.

She noted that “student safety needs to be a high priority,” but school system leaders also must remember the adults who work with the students each day.

“The physical and emotional well-being of educators and support professionals cannot be an afterthought,” she said.

Crawford-Smick said a hybrid stage appears to be a logical option “on the surface,” but she expressed concern that children could face increased risk of exposure during the days they are not in school and around other kids in a day-care setting, which would then “completely nullify the purpose of the hybrid schedule.”

She emphasized that HCPS needs adequate funding to ensure that schools can reopen safely.

“While I realize school funding and other public agencies rely on the prosperity of the local and state economy, restorer of the economy is not in our job description,” Crawford-Smick said. “The current economic uncertainty is not a problem that HCPS created, and it’s not yours to fix.”

She urged officials to include teachers and support personnel in the recovery planning process as much as possible, noting that “HCEA does not claim to have all the answers, but we want to be your partner and see this through.”

School board members and the superintendent stressed that they are listening to the community’s concerns and they are taking public comments into consideration as the reopening plan is finalized.

“I would really, really urge the public to listen and not react and to hear the whole [plan] and really, really I would encourage the parents to have positive outlooks on the school situation when they talk to their child,” said board Vice President Rachel Gauthier, who noted that children “take in so much” of what adults say.

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