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Harford schools form project teams, seek more community feedback as ‘digital teaching and learning’ plan is developed

Three teams have been convened by Harford County Public Schools officials to develop a “digital teaching and learning plan,” as the school system continues to navigate the process of delivering instruction to more than 38,000 students who are out of school because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The teams are made up of HCPS central office officials, employee union leaders, school principals and Board of Education members. They will focus on how to improve distance and digital learning for the rest of the school year, as well as the summer programs offered by the school system and how best to deliver instruction when the 2020-2021 school year starts this fall.

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“This is work that, at one level, has started already but is something that we’ll be needing to do a lot more of going through the summer,” HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson told members of the Board of Education on Monday.

The challenges of teaching students remotely this spring are converging with planning for summer activities, “where we need to also dramatically ramp up the support we provide students.” They also are converging as HCPS develops a recovery plan for when schools open in the fall, as officials must determine “what does ‘open’ mean in the fall for school systems,” Bulson said.

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“Trying to separate digital learning from distance learning from recovery, from summer planning, is going to be hard,” the superintendent said. “At the same time, we need to remain focused primarily on the digital learning — I think that’s the bigger long-term investment for us.”

Many students, as well as their parents, have struggled with learning from home, and a number of parents have described those struggles on social media and in public comments to the school board. Such comments were read into the record during meetings May 4 and on Monday, the same day Bulson put forth the digital teaching and learning plan.

“This is hard,” Bulson said of providing instruction on such a large scale. “We’ve never run anything quite like this.”

Some parents, such as those who work in the technology field, offered their expertise with making improvements. Bulson pledged to involve parents, as well as other members of the community, as the teams proceed with their work.

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“One of the key elements of these work groups is to look deliberately at how we engage our various stakeholders, including those talent assets that we know exist in the county,” he said.

In addition to the three project teams, Bulson plans to develop a digital teaching and learning advisory group composed of people from different sectors of the community.

“Each of these different leadership teams will have a session with the advisory [group] and bounce some of those decisions off [them]," he said.

The teams

Bulson will head the first team, which will be focused on strategic leadership and communication. School board member Sonja Karwacki also is part of this team.

That team provides “direction and guidance,” handles budgeting, identifies resources, takes the lead on communications within the school system and with the community, gets feedback and engages with the community, according to Bulson.

The second team, focused on curriculum design, modification and delivery, as well as staff training, is led by Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for HCPS. School board member Carol Mueller is among the participants.

The third team is led by Renee Villareal, executive director of elementary education. Its focus is implementation and the actual delivery of instruction, identifying students’ technical needs, such as those related to electronic devices, promoting “quality teaching and learning,” and ultimately, evaluating how the process is going, according to Bulson’s presentation.

No student leaders are on the teams, however. Christian Walker, the student representative on the school board, asked Bulson how he plans to involve students who are at the “front of the line in receiving digital learning.”

Walker offered his help as well as that of the incoming student representative, who traditionally is sworn in after the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Bulson agreed that students are “one of the many groups we need to involve,” and he suggested that the incoming student representative be part of the digital teaching and learning advisory group, to which the three project teams report. He also suggested that Walker and the incoming representative, as well as other students, work with him over the summer.

Walker also suggested reaching out to parents, especially those who provided “insightful comments” to the school board and “are clearly passionate about what’s going on for their child’s distance learning,” and get them involved in developing the digital learning plan.

Community feedback

Bulson shared the results of a digital learning survey, which closed last week after netting 14,000 responses and “gives us some really rich data.”

School system officials also are reviewing about 160 pages of anecdotal comments that were provided as answers to “open-ended” survey questions, according to Bulson. Those comments are being reviewed for common themes, some of which are similar to the comments to the school board.

The survey can help HCPS officials “distinguish and put into context” concerns they are hearing from the community. The responses could lead to further surveys or questions from the school system as officials work to refine their data, according to Bulson, who said more input is needed as summer programs and fall recovery efforts are being planned.

“There’s much we’re going to need to hear from our broader community about how to address those needs because there will be a lot to consider,” he said.

‘Student centered’

Bulson emphasized that the digital teaching and learning strategy must be “student centered.” There must be a focus on ensuring students’ mental well being as well as their physical health, plus the strategy must address the inequities among HCPS families revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how such inequity affects parents’ ability to support their children’s schooling.

“So much of what’s happened has really left a lot on the parents’ shoulders in the last couple of months, and we know this is going to continue,” Bulson said.

He also discussed the values of technology in terms of facilitating teachers’ support of students, but noted how it is not as helpful in building communities and developing relationships between students and teachers. Officials must consider those relationships and technology’s impact on them as schools make the transition back to face-to-face learning.

“We know that relationship building is such a critical part of our work, and we’re not going to try to have computers replace the relationships that teachers develop by having those face-to-face interactions with their students,” he said.

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