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Harford elementary schoolers now to return twice a week starting March 1, with possibility of 4 days in April

Harford County Public Schools announced that elementary students would have the opportunity to return to in-person classes two days a week beginning March 1 — and possibly more days in the future.

A message posted to Harford County Public Schools’ website at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday announced that the system planned to allow elementary school students to return twice a week for in-person hybrid instruction.

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Harford elementary students could be back as many as four days a week in April, if conditions allow, according to the message.

Parents and guardians will receive further information from school principals, according to the message. All-virtual will also remain an option for parents.

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More specific details will be released Monday at the Board of Education meeting.

Superintendent Sean Bulson said there were a number of factors that went into the decision to bring students back more frequently.

One of those was the change in guidance from the state that was issued Jan. 21. The new guidance, Bulson said, still references physical distancing, but not as extensively as the previous document, issued in late August before the start of the school year.

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“The spirit was different in the old document,” he said, noting it had multiple descriptions of social distancing referencing 6 feet. Those descriptions are completely moved from the new guidance and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said, references 6 feet whenever possible.

“There is no clear place where that social distancing is treated as a binary,” he said Wednesday. “But it’s not just the change in guidance, it’s the fact we have other mitigation strategies that can help us create a safe environment.”

Teachers at all 33 of the county’s public elementary schools had the opportunity to be vaccinated last week, Bulson said, giving the school system more certainty in avoiding COVID-19 infections.

“We know that provides an additional level of confidence for those people going into the classroom,” Bulson said.

He noted Wednesday the change is only for elementary school students at this time.

Some concerns were also assuaged by new County Health Officer Dr. David Bishai, who at the Jan. 25 school board meeting gave a “great analysis of the science around COVID, and talked at length about the differentiation between transmission rates in younger kids versus older students and adults,” Bulson said.

Though school system officials were aware of that research previously, “when you add that together with changing guidance, with the vaccines, with the [student desk shields] ... I feel very confident we can do the two-day [hybrid] safely at the elementary level,” Bulson said.

The announcement came a day after Bulson told the Harford County Council he planned to accelerate elementary schoolers’ return to in-person learning, but was reticent to share details at Tuesday’s council meeting. Members of the council criticized him for not publicizing the plan sooner.

The superintendent said he was able to hint at it during the council meeting, but didn’t want to give specifics because it was important he talked to elementary school staff Wednesday first.

“Changing plans and changing messaging has really been hard during this, knowing certain stakeholders need that information first,” Bulson said. “It was important to be able to wait and talk to our staff.”

He had a call with nearly 2,000 elementary school staff members and a meeting with elementary school principals Wednesday.

Councilman Tony Giangiordano, after learning of the new plan, said it was wonderful news.

Residents have been calling and emailing the county council for weeks, he said, thinking they have authority over the school board when they do not. Over 30 people signed up to speak at Tuesday’s meeting — the majority about school closures. Several called for Bulson’s resignation.

Giangiordano said he had no advance knowledge of the announcement and did not understand why Bulson would not reveal more details at the council meeting.

“If he had some other plan, why not say to us ‘I’ve been exploring the possibility of coming back to school more than one day, I need to iron out some details, information is going to be forthcoming,’” Giangiordano said, “instead of having us sit up there, be bombarded the last two weeks with people thinking we make the decisions and we have the ability to change his mind.”

Council President Patrick Vincenti said he knew about the plan the morning of the council meeting and hoped Bulson would announce it to the public that night.

At Tuesday meeting, Vincenti said he was “disappointed” Bulson would not share more.

“I tried to hold back, I tried not to say any more, but it is personal and I just need to let people know that you do have a plan, you are going to announce it soon, and I wish it was tonight,” Vincenti said to Bulson at the meeting.

Asked Wednesday if he thought his comments spurred the plan’s announcement, Vincenti said that “whatever got it out in the public sooner than later is a positive thing.”

Vincenti fully expects people to continue to call in to council meetings with school concerns as the revised plan only addresses elementary schools.

“It just gives our younger children a foot in the door,” he said.

Middle and high school students are currently slated to return under a once a week hybrid plan March 15. Bulson said because transmission differs between younger and older students, and because upcoming COVID-19 vaccine clinics for secondary teachers were canceled due to uncertainty about supply, those plans could be revisted and adjustments made.

Scheduling specifics have not yet been ironed out for returning elementary schoolers. Bulson said more details about the plans will be revealed at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. Beyond the more immediate issues, Bulson said at Tuesday’s council meeting that the school board is also considering what the fall semester might look like with the updated guidance.

Also to be revealed at Monday’s school board meeting is the school system’s plan for spring sports, Bulson said, which schools hope to begin in March.

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