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Harford schools purchasing more than 30,000 plastic desk shields with hopes of returning students twice a week

Students sit behind plastic shields at their desks during a fourth-grade English class at the Osborn School, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Rye, N.Y. Harford County Public Schools recently approved the purchase of similar desk shields as they begin to return to in-person learning in March. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Students sit behind plastic shields at their desks during a fourth-grade English class at the Osborn School, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Rye, N.Y. Harford County Public Schools recently approved the purchase of similar desk shields as they begin to return to in-person learning in March. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Harford County schools will purchase nearly 34,000 plastic shields for student and teacher desks to protect against the spread of COVID-19, which officials say could allow them to bring students back two days a week later this year.

The roughly $880,000 purchase was approved Wednesday morning during a special Board of Education meeting, just days after Superintendent Sean Bulson announced a hybrid learning model to bring students back into the classroom once a week. Elementary students in Harford County Public Schools will return to school once a week beginning March 1, with middle and high school students slated to follow March 15.

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It’s unclear how quickly the school system would be able to move to twice a week once the plastic shields arrive, but Bulson said Wednesday schools wouldn’t start going two days a week on March 1, even if the shields arrived before that. The shields are expected to ship by mid-February.

“We wouldn’t go to two days a week on March 1, there is still a lot of assessing we are doing,” Bulson said. “We’re trying to create every condition possible to move to two days a week quickly, that’s a conversation that’s already begun ... but we see a path to two days a week is much more likely and much sooner than we were even thinking about a few weeks ago.”

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Virtual learning has been in place at HCPS since Nov. 13, when COVID-19 metrics began to spike in the state and the county. Plans to return locally were announced Monday on the heels of Gov. Larry Hogan, State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon and Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s acting deputy secretary for public health, urging all Maryland school systems to bring students back in some capacity by the beginning of March.

The board voted 6-0 — board members David Bauer, Joyce Herold and Tamera Rush missed the special meeting — to purchase 31,471 shields for student desks and 2,298 for teacher desks. The student shields are tri-fold, covering the front and portions of the sides of each desk; the teacher desk shields are a single piece, said Eric Davis, the school system’s chief of administration.

Money for the plastic shields is coming from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II Fund, part of the $900 billion federal coronavirus relief bill that was signed into law in late December, according to Deborah Judd, the Assistant Superintendent for Business Services.

The school system did not purchase plastic shields with the initial round of CARES Act funding it received last spring, because much of that money was used to purchase devices for students and other personal protective equipment, such as masks.

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“With the additional funds we received now we are able to explore what other items are needed to continue safely returning teachers and students to classrooms,” Judd wrote in an email.

While the shields are portable, not enough were purchased to assign one to each student in the school system. Rather, 15 student shields were purchased for each classroom, which would allow roughly half of a typical class size in a room.

“Fifteen gets us to the point we can have students in two days a week and have one available for every student in that setting,” Bulson said.

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Cornell Brown explained that some of the shields may be assigned to rooms, particularly in secondary schools, that aren’t in use throughout the entire day.

“At the high school level, students move and every classroom is not being used, so we will have shields in classrooms, even if they aren’t being occupied,” he said. “Resource areas like music and art, those rooms aren’t always in use, science labs aren’t always in use, but they will be outfitted with desk shields so that students, when they get to those classrooms, they will be able to utilize the equipment.”

School officials have pointed to state guidance on reopening schools that requires safety protocols, such as masking, social distancing and frequent cleaning as a roadblock to bringing more students back for in-person learning safely. In particular, maintaining 6 feet of physical distance between unrelated students was barrier to having more than a quarter of kids in a classroom at one time, hence plans for only one day of instruction each week.

Even with the desk shields, students would have to wear masks in the classrooms. Board member Dr. Roy Phillips noted that the shields would not provide much protection on either side. Youth would have to maintain 6 feet of distance to their right and left, but schools could squeeze more students into classrooms by shortening distances between them in the front and back, “which is great,” Phillips said.

Because they are portable, the shields may also be taken to the cafeteria during lunch.

“Lunch is a place where kids come together without masks, so the fact these can be carried, some schools may set them up in lunchrooms and leave them there, others may have kids carry them down, but it does offer a little bit more protection in the lunchroom where kids aren’t wearing masks,” Bulson said.

The superintendent reiterated that the plastic shields alone are not enough to guarantee bringing students back twice a week, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“Purchasing the Plexiglas helps ... it provides just one more level of support, but no one thing we do is going to change the course of this,” Bulson said. “I think this is a good addition, and all I can commit is that we are going to work hard to get to two days as soon as possible.”

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