The president of the Harford County teachers’ union sent a letter to the county’s school board and superintendent Tuesday, objecting to board members not meeting in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic while discussing plans for students and teachers to return to the classroom for in-person instruction.
“I am extremely disappointed to hear many members of the Board of Education discuss their concerns regarding the risk to themselves and their family members when discussing meeting in person," Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Educator’s Association, wrote in an email sent to all board members. “It appears you have forgotten the hundreds of HCPS staff members currently working in school buildings each day."
On Monday night, the Board of Education held a teleconference call for its meeting, as it has done since the pandemic took hold in the spring. At the meeting, board members discussed plans for the gradual return of some students and teachers to the classroom based on improving health metrics.
Public comment on the matter was required to be submitted by noon the day of the meeting through the “Contact Board of Education” link on the school system’s website in order to be read into the record at the board business meeting. All other comments received after the noon deadline or by other means would be forwarded to board members and Superintendent Sean Bulson, according to a public notice issued prior to the meeting.
The school board, according to an HCEA news release, should recognize the inconsistency of asking educators to return in person and refusing to do that same thing as a board.
“If you have any intention of sending additional educators back into schools in the coming weeks, the least you can do is sit with 10 other adults in a room spaced 6 feet apart to conduct a business meeting,” Crawford-Smick wrote.
Bulson said at Monday’s meeting that he foresaw technological and logistical challenges in moving the board’s meetings back to in-person. Several school board members agreed with him, though they acknowledged that allowing citizens to deliver their own comments and remarks is a compelling reason for holding in-person meetings.
In her email, Crawford-Smick noted that the Harford County Council has been meeting in a hybrid format and have provided for live public comment at its meetings since April.
“The speakers submit an electronic form in advance and they are called on the telephone when it is time to speak. The Harford County Council are not trailblazers, so I can’t imagine making this change would be that difficult,” Crawford-Smick wrote. “There is no reason HCPS cannot do this or something similar, someone needs to figure it out."
School board member David Bauer said the board’s meetings should stay virtual in view of the risks of spreading the coronavirus. He also saw opening meetings up as encouragement for citizens and board members to physically attend the sessions, putting multiple people together in the same room.
“Everything we can do to reduce that risk is helpful,” he said. “That’s why I believe it is worth it."
The board did not make a decision Monday on how its future meetings will be conducted.
Crawford-Smick said educators throughout Harford were looking to the school board for leadership.
“They want to believe that you have their safety in the forefront of your decisions, and that you have their best interests, and those of our students, as the utmost priority," she wrote. "You cannot expect to demonstrate this to your employees if you are not comfortable meeting in person.”
Many HCPS staff were “compelled to return to their work site" prior to the start of the school year Sept. 8, she noted.
“How do you expect the educators in Harford County to trust decision makers who are not willing to put themselves at the same risk? No one chose to be in the midst of this pandemic, but you chose to be a leader in this school district," she wrote. "Lead by example and meet in person before you compel another staff member to work on-sight.”
At Monday’s meeting, Bulson outlined a plan for returning small groups of students with the greatest need — those in special education and the youngest learners — down the road should coronavirus positivity rates in the county remain below 5% and new cases per 100,000 hover between 5 and 15. More details are expected to be available next week.
However, he expressed concern that returning to in-person learning would force schools to bring staff back. A survey sent to parents and teachers to gauge their interest in returning for in-person instruction did not yield enough teachers expressing interest in returning to schools.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Bulson also expressed concerns that even if more teachers were comfortable returning to the classroom, should a teacher exhibit COVID-19 related symptoms or come in contact with someone who has and needed to be quarantined, it could pose additional problems with staffing.
“It’s been a lot harder to get substitutes right now,” he said, noting staffing issues at some of the Learning Support Centers. “In a normal year, we could have a couple hundred substitutes on a given day but right now, we don’t have that many comfortable coming in.”
Aegis reporter James Whitlow contributed to this article.