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Harford County

Harford’s Republican state lawmakers call on schools to reopen with hybrid model instead of all virtual learning

Republican lawmakers representing Harford County sent a letter to Harford County Public Schools' superintendent and Board of Education on Thursday, calling for schools to reopen under a hybrid model.

Harford County’s Republican legislators have sent a letter to the Harford County Public Schools’ superintendent and Board of Education advocating for schools to reopen for under a hybrid learning plan with both in-person and virtual instruction offered.

The letter, dated Thursday, cites Harford County’s low COVID-19 infection rates and concerns about a shortage of devices for students as well as plans for special needs students as schools prepare to begin virtual instruction Sept. 8.

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“We share the concerns with many parents and families that the current system of exclusively virtual learning will not meet the educational needs of Harford County students,” Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, one of the letter’s signees said in a prepared release.

“The previous semester of online learning has already put our students behind. The school year begins in less than two weeks and there is a shortage of Chromebooks. There is also still parts of the county that lack reliable internet access. This is an untenable situation for our students.”

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The letter proposes giving parents a choice as to whether they want their child to return to school or to learn remotely. “Offering choices will also help those parents who are struggling to balance their work schedule with their children’s learning schedule.”

Teachers, the letter states, should also be given the same choice as to whether they are physically in the classroom on teaching remotely. The lawmakers said it would be “appropriate” for teachers who opt to go back into the classroom bonus pay.

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, Sen. Bob Cassilly, Sen. Jason Gallion, Del. Lauren Arikan, Del. Mike Griffith, Del. Susan McComas and Del. Teresa Reilly — all Republicans — also signed the letter.

Superintendent Sean Bulson said he had forwarded the letter to Dr. Russell Moy, the county health officer, for his opinion. “We’ve had great collaboration with the [Harford County Health Department] and I want to keep working with them to identify the metrics we need to be using to make decisions on determining what safety parameters would correspond to those metrics,” Bulson said.

Bulson said HCPS does not have the ability to produce the hybrid model lawmakers are asking for, based on previous conversations he’s had with local health officials regarding physical distancing requirements and current metrics.

“If we can get really good guidance on what safety parameters correspond to the metrics, particularly our local health data, then we can design educational structures that allow us to stay within those safety parameters,” Bulson said.

On Aug. 10, the Harford school board approved plans for all-virtual learning through the end of the first semester in late January. The plans also called for Learning Support Centers to be open at some school buildings, where employees would supervise small groups of students during the day. More than 2,500 parents had signed their students up for the learning centers, where children would still be taught virtually.

HCPS, however, has a shortage of staffers for those learning centers and announced last week that it would stagger opening through early October.

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Originally, Harford had issued a plan that called for three options — fully virtual, in-person or hybrid learning — based on the stage of Gov. Larry Hogan’s Roadmap for Recovery for the state. Under that plan, with the state still in Stage 2 of recovery, Harford schools would’ve reopened under a hybrid model.

However, the plan was scrapped shortly after it was introduced, after receiving feedback from school board members, HCPS staffers and members of the public during an electronic town hall. At the Aug. 10 school board meeting, Bulson said the hybrid plan “still had many holes, and it had many logistical issues we could not deliver on” in terms of providing instruction and a safe environment.

Harford County has seen 2,381 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic took hold in March, according to the latest data from the state released Thursday. With a population of 255,441 residents, that translates to an infection rate of less than .01%, the lawmakers argued in the letter.

It also cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recognized that in-person learning positively contributes to the mental, emotional and physical health of students.

“County residents have done an incredible job of keeping our COVID-19 numbers consistently low. … HCPS must take full advantage of this low infection rate, adopt reasonable measures to protect teachers, students, and parents, and greatly expand opportunities for in-school learning,” the letter states.

The letter is also critical of the Maryland State Board of Education, and calls on the state to provide more meaningful and practical directives and resources to the counties to “facilitate maximum in-school learning opportunities.”

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“We fully appreciate the immense challenges you and the HCPS Board of Education have faced in providing suitable leaning environments under the very restrictive and inflexible state mandates for social distancing, masking, cleanliness, etc.,” it states. “We are also mindful of the considerable disadvantages you have had in these most difficult times given the very minimal direction and assistance offered you by the State Board of Education.”

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Gov. Larry Hogan and State Superintendent Karen Salmon have called a press conference for 4 p.m. today, although it is not clear what will be addressed.

“I don’t know if what we learn from the governor and Dr. Salmon this afternoon will shed some light on this question of guidance about which safety parameters we need to be following and how strictly,” Bulson said.

Salmon had previously said she wanted to give school systems flexibility and that if they reopened buildings, they should follow CDC guidelines. But she has come under fire from education advocates who say the state should have laid out detailed requirements for county school systems to meet, allowing some flexibility but not leaving every decision to individual districts.

Griffith, in the release, expressed his concerns about Harford’s more than 5,000 special needs students and said that teachers would be unable to properly fulfill federally mandated Individual Education Plans, or IEPs.

“The online-only option will put a large number of students behind,” Griffith said in the release. “I am gravely concerned that we will find this well-meaning effort to keep our children safe through online-only schooling will end up doing much more harm than good.”

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Michael Thatcher, special education director for the school system, previously said case managers had been reaching out to families during the summer to help craft IEPs for students going into the next school year.

This article will be updated.


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