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Harford’s in-person learning plan calls for special education, K-2 students to return once a week starting mid-October

Teachers and some students could be returning to Harford County schools as soon as mid-October under a new plan reviewed by the Board of Education on Monday. But a number of educators and parents have expressed concern about potentially putting children, staff and their respective families at risk.

If local health metrics allow, Harford County Public Schools staff will return to schools Oct. 12, according to a draft plan developed by HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson and his staff.

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A one-day per week hybrid learning plan for kindergarten through second-grade students would begin Oct. 19. Students in grades 3-5 and Pre-K would return for a one-day per week hybrid on Nov. 4 if health metrics hold steady, and middle and high school students would begin a one-day hybrid Nov. 16.

The draft was listed as a discussion item on the agenda for the school board meeting, although one board member tried to amend the agenda so the body could take a vote on the plan. David Bauer noted its overall significance to a school system that serves more than 38,000 students, as well as the many changes from a plan the board approved in mid-August calling for all-virtual education for the first semester of the 2020-21 school year.

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“My interpretation is that this needs to be a board decision, to approve a plan that is dramatically different than the plan we approved in August,” Bauer said.

Bauer, who stressed that he is not a lawyer, cited his interpretation of local regulations and state statutes that govern the duties of boards of education in overseeing the operations of school systems.

Other board members deferred to Patrick Spicer, general counsel for the school system, who noted state laws are not entirely clear about where the authority of local school superintendents and the authority of school boards begins and ends, especially regarding the reopening of schools following a pandemic.

Spicer acknowledged Bauer’s concerns about the “significant implications” of a decision on the proposed plan, but he also brought up the issue of how requiring the superintendent to get board approval for decisions made throughout the reopening process could make things more difficult for school system operations.

Bauer’s motion to amend the agenda failed, and Bulson discussed his plan with the board later in the meeting. The school board heard about two hours of public comment on the plan.

The time allotted to hear public comments, was limited to two hours, based on a motion made by board member Joyce Herold. She also motioned that the time allowed for reading each comment be limited to 90 seconds, and that comments in their entirety be posted on the HCPS website — the board voted 7-3 in favor of Herold’s motion.

Many parents and teachers who submitted comments blasted Bulson’s plan to have students go back to school one day a week, citing concerns about protecting the health and safety of students and teachers in the classroom, noting that teachers and staff have worked through the summer to train and prepare their homes to deliver virtual instruction, plus that students have gotten into a rhythm with online classes that would disrupted by a shift to hybrid instruction.

Other parents expressed support for the plan, noting how harmful it has been for their children — especially young elementary schoolers or students with special needs — to spend hours by themselves in front of a screen. Some said their children have become disengaged from school and noted how kids have been able to safely interact in other situations such as play dates or youth sports.

Hybrid learning plans

Essentially, students in any given class would be divided into four groups, with each group attending school one day per week while the other three-quarters learn virtually, Bulson explained prior to Monday’s meeting.

“With just a quarter of the students coming in, it allows us to at least maintain the room setup so that we can have the six-foot social distancing because, as we learned with the learning centers, we can only get, depending on the room, eight to 12 work sites in the classroom and still have them set up at 6 feet [apart],” he said. “Doing a one-day-a-week hybrid to start ensures that our groups aren’t over 10 [people].”

By Dec. 7, having all students in buildings twice a week for in-person learning “is possible,” according to the plan. Bulson said that would likely depend on how many students opt to continue learning fully virtually.

Students in special education programs, those at the John Archer School, some English language learners and some students in the career and technology education programs would also be allowed to return to in-person learning starting Oct. 19.

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Bulson said the school system has already heard from some parents concerned about their students returning and said that all-virtual instruction will still be an option for every student. As more details about the plans come out, he also expects to hear from more parents on the opposite side of the spectrum, who want their students back in the classroom faster and more frequently.

Teachers ‘leery’ about return to classroom

Teachers have still have many questions about how the school system can keep students safe, as well as teachers and their families at home, said Amanda Roberts, who teaches government and psychology at Harford Technical High School. There also are concerns about how schools can manage the logistics of students passing through hallways, gathering in cafeterias and using restrooms, she said.

“There are just a lot of unanswered questions right now,” Roberts said, adding that having teachers return to classrooms is “definitely not ideal until [HCPS] can come up with a feasible solution to keep us safe.”

Ashley Heckman, who teaches eighth-grade language arts at Havre de Grace Middle School, said she is “very leery” about going back to school, especially since she is five months pregnant.

Heckman has the same concerns as Roberts regarding how the movement of students through school buildings will be managed. She also has questions on what resources teachers will have to protect themselves and their students, such as protective gear and sanitation supplies, as well as who will be responsible for sanitizing classrooms.

Finally, Heckman wants to know if she will be able to have any accommodations to stay safe while she is pregnant.

“I don’t know what kind of resources we’re going to [receive],” she said.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Bulson said he understands concerns from teachers and said staff and the school board were going to work through answering as many of their questions as possible.

He acknowledged some educators not be comfortable returning to the buildings and said because individual concerns can be pretty wide-ranging, said it was best for teachers to contact the human resources department to discuss their options.

“It’s kind of hard to get into specifics; teachers with concerns or questions need to contact our HR department because there is a range — there are leave options, there are other things — but they need to go case-by-case with those,” Bulson said.

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Caitlin Lawville, a sixth-grade science teacher at Havre de Grace Middle School, said she and her students are “adapting pretty well” to online learning, but there are challenges.

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There is a lot of hands-on learning that happens in her classroom, so Lawville has turned to demonstrations, animations, YouTube videos, as well as any materials the students have at home to help explain concepts.

Lawville said her students have been troopers, but being in the classroom allows her to read their expressions and “really dial in to see how they’re doing.”

That is much more difficult online, and she is currently not sure all students are getting the same educational experience, Lawville noted.

Despite those challenges, Lawville said she is not comfortable going back to school, as much as she would love to be with her students.

She said going back could be a “classroom management nightmare,” as teachers balance simultaneous instruction of students in person and online, plus looking out for health and safety issues.

She is concerned focusing on preventing the spread of COVID-19 could harm students' instructional experiences.

“We know it’s safer,” Lawville said of online learning. “And, we know that we don’t have to go into a situation where we don’t have every answer planned out.”

Chrystie Crawford-Smick, the president of the Harford County Education Association President asked that school leaders hold off on the return plan and work on one that is safe and educationally sound.

“Without a fully developed plan, it is irresponsible to move forward," she said.

She said teachers have been left out of planning for a return to the classroom and should be involved in the process.

“The voice of educators — the people who are living this are pivotal stakeholders and need to be involved in the decision-making process. Simply asking for feedback after a plan is completed is not authentic collaboration,” Crawford-Smick said.

Returning teachers to the classroom, would also increase demands on them. “They will now be required to teach asynchronous students, synchronous students with a device at home, students with a packet, and students in-person who will not all have a device,” she said. "How is that possible?”

Virtual learning ‘best decision for the situation we’re in’

Some parents also seem skeptical of the plans. Holly Benesch, who has a student in first grade at Ring Factory Elementary, is wary of plans to rush students back to class, especially if it is just one day per week.

“Having them attend school one day and not another will disrupt the stability that school would typically provide them in a non-pandemic environment,” the Bel Air mom said.

Asking teachers to manage students in the building as well as those learning online is also a lot to ask, she said, and won’t provide the best education for students in either format.

“If teachers have to divide their attention between both, it will inevitably degrade the quality of the children’s education even more than it already has during this virtual experience,” Benesch said. “I know that teachers are already working so hard trying to navigate technology platforms and get to know their students from afar -- I cannot imagine the amount of stress this will place on them.”

Katie York, the mother of a sixth-grader at Aberdeen Middle, said she’s taught college-level courses in-person and virtually, and worries about putting extra work on already overburdened teachers.

“It can be difficult to fully engage students online while monitoring the chat for online courses; I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be if instructors are also expected to monitor students physically in the classroom while engaging students online and monitoring the chat/online student concerns,” York said.

She also has concerns about inviting students and staff back to the buildings putting them unnecessarily at risk for exposure to the virus.

Heckman, the Havre de Grace teacher, acknowledged that virtual classes are “not perfect,” but she things are going “pretty well” so far, nearly two weeks into the school year. Most of her eighth-graders are learning from home, and she estimated two to three are in Learning Support Centers.

Heckman is pregnant with her third child — her other children are in kindergarten and fourth grade in Harford County Public Schools. Her husband has a flexible work schedule, so he is able to spend the morning and early afternoon supervising their children’s learning while Heckman can focus on her students, something for which she considers herself fortunate.

“I know not everyone is as lucky as that to have that type of flexibility in their schedule,” she said.

As for Roberts, she said online learning is going better than expected, as she is able to teach her course content, and she and her students have been able to interact and get to know each other.

“All the things that would happen in a regular classroom are happening online,” she said.

Roberts described virtual classes as “the best decision for the situation we’re currently in” with the pandemic.

Renee Stratton is the PTA president for Havre de Grace Elementary School; she has one child in fifth grade at the elementary school and another in seventh grade at Havre de Grace Middle.

“It’s working very well for our family,” said Stratton, who noted that teachers at the elementary and middle schools “are doing a phenomenal job traversing this new climate and dealing with hiccups as they come along.”

“We would love to be back in person, but just because we want the pandemic to be over doesn’t mean it is over, and we need to protect our vulnerable family members,” she said.

Return dates contingent on health metrics

All of the key dates are contingent on Harford County’s COVID-19 positivity rate remaining below 5% and the new case rate remaining between 5 and 15 per 100,000 residents The school system will also consider quarantine incidence rate at school sites, and the trajectory of all metrics, according to the draft of the plan.

“If the weekly averages of both [positivity and new case] rates remain steady or decrease for four weeks, we will move into the next less restrictive step,” the plan states. “Additional metrics such as trend lines, incidents requiring quarantines [and] spikes at the state level may affect decisions to move to the next phase.”

If the positivity rates increases by 1.5% or the new case rate jumps by 2 per 100,000 residents, the school system, in collaboration with the Harford County Health Department, will reconsider moving to less restrictive steps, the plan states.

As of Sunday, the positivity rate for Harford County was 2.3% according to state data, and the seven-day new case rate was 6.71%. Both are below the state averages and have been on the decline for the past five days.

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But even if the downward trajectory of those key health metrics continues, unless social distancing guidelines are relaxed, it will be physically impossible to bring many more students back to the classroom.

“If we do hit numbers below those benchmarks, what does that mean in regard to the social distancing? Because right now, what’s constraining us, as far as group sizes and stuff like that, is the social distancing requirements,” Bulson said. “[The state] can give us new metrics, but if the social distancing doesn’t change, we can’t have larger group sizes.”

Harford County Public Schools was among eight districts in the state that had not submitted a plan to the state outlining a return of students to the classroom during the 2020 calendar year, when Gov. Larry Hogan late last month strongly encouraged schools to begin the process of reopening.

In July, HCPS staff initially proposed a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction, but quickly changed plans for all-online instruction with some students attending Learning Support Centers in school buildings after receiving feedback on the original plan.

The present Continuity of Learning Plan calls for an all-virtual first semester, which HCPS moved forward with when school began Sept. 8.

Schools are currently at the beginning of step two in their three-step plan for returning to classrooms, according to the draft plan. Step two indicates moderate transmission and supports limited in-person activities. Currently, all learning is done virtually, and learning centers support an 8:2 student to staff ratio.

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