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Harford schools treating 2-week coronavirus closure like ‘summer break,’ will arrange to feed students starting Tuesday

Harford County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sean Bulson talks about precautions the school system is taking and condsidering during a news conference Monday afternoon in Bel Air.
Harford County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sean Bulson talks about precautions the school system is taking and condsidering during a news conference Monday afternoon in Bel Air.(Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

An instructional packet will be sent home with Harford County Public School’s students today and the school system plans to begin providing meals for students in need starting Tuesday, as school systems around Maryland figure out how to determine student needs as schools close for two weeks starting Monday to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Specifics on where food services will be provided was still being determined by midday Friday, Harford Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson said. HCPS is using its summer meals program as a basis but will build off that to make sure they reach more students.

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“We have some sites where we deliver food that addresses places with the highest concentration of students [receiving] free and reduced meals but it doesn’t really cover the whole district,” Bulson said. “We’ve mapped out where all of our students are in the county, and so we’re just coming up with creative ways to make sure we get food to as many of them as possible.”

Bulson said the school system is planning to operate during the two-week period the same way it would during summer break.

“Essentially, our 12-month employees work — at the school level that means principals, 12-month secretaries, assistant principals and custodial staff. It’s the majority of Central Office,” he said.

Eleven-month employees, which includes school psychologists, may be asked to work during that time. A notice from the school system said they should await further instruction from their supervisors. Ten-month employees, which includes teachers, will not report to work starting Monday.

“Our teachers are not working during this break until we get some other direction,” Bulson said.

All 10- and 12-month employees will continue to be paid during the closures, according to the notice from the school system.

Beyond that two weeks, though, school system officials still have plenty of questions, including how 10 days schools are closed between March 16 and March 27 are going to count against the 180 days of instruction that are required.

“We don’t know if we’re going to need to make them all up; if they’re going to be treated like snow days where we make up the ones we can and then apply for a waiver, because we also don’t know how long this is going to be,” Bulson said. “We have a window, but we suspect there will be a reassement period at the end.”

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So, central office staff will spend much of the next two weeks planning for all of those eventualities, he said.

“If we return in two weeks, what will that look like? How will we provide the service? There is a chance we’ll be dealing with high absentee rates, both in staff and students, if some people are concerned about returning. That’s something we’ll have to be prepared for,” Bulson said.

Should the closures be extended longer, HCPS staff is working on how to better deliver instruction to students.

“Our preliminary plans are very general just to keep kids working a little bit, but they aren’t really focused as we would hope to keep kids moving forward in the curriculum,” Bulson said.

Packets sent home with students Friday and available on the HCPS are not intended to introduce any new material, “it’s just to keep kids’ minds active,” Bulson said.

Instructional services staff started developing the packets on Wednesday, “but our hope was to be able to distribute them by today, but we thought we were doing it in anticipation of a later closing,” Bulson said.

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The work was expedited once school system’s learned Thursday that the closures would begin next week and the print shop worked until 5 a.m. Friday to produce that packets so that each student would receive a hard copy, because the school system doesn’t have data regarding internet availability for all students, he said.

“We wanted to make sure everybody was able to bring something home,” Bulson said.

Teachers were not asked to produce any of the materials, but that may change if closures are extended.

“If this extends longer, we’re going to need to have a clearer instructional plan and that’s something we’ll be working very aggressively during this two-week closure," he said.

The school system is also working toward finding ways to pay its per diem employees, such as long-term substitutes, home and hospital teachers, and some food service workers, who typically wouldn’t get paid during an inclement weather or similar closure.

“If possible, we want to make sure people don’t have these big gaps in income if we can help it," Bulson said. "That’s the spirit we’re approaching this with, but we still have some problem solving to do and figuring out who is affect so we can make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure our employees don’t suffer as well.”

During the closure, all buildings and school buses will be cleaned and disinfected, according to an email from Jillian Lader, a spokeswoman for the school system.

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