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Harford elementary school students to return to one-day hybrid starting March 1, middle and high school March 15

Elementary students in Harford County Public Schools will return to school once a week beginning March 1, with middle and high school students to follow March 15.

Special education students at John Archer School and those students who are part of the STRIVE, Life Skills and other specialized programs will return up to four days a week starting March 1. Families of students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be contacted to discuss the needs of their students.

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The plan for Harford County students to begin returning for in-person instruction was posted on the school system’s website Monday, hours before the Board of Education meeting that evening. The plan also was the subject of a roughly two-hour discussion between Superintendent Sean Bulson and school board members.

At the meeting, a number of members of the community, including some parents who have been active members of the Reopen Harford County Schools page on Facebook pushing school officials to return to in-person learning full time, blasted the plan to return to hybrid learning with one day a week in school as the “bare minimum” that could be offered by HCPS.

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A few parents spoke in support of remaining virtual, however, saying their children were doing well and expressing concerns about safety upon returning to in-person learning. The plan does not require students return for in-person learning; it’s up to families to decide whether their child should come back or continue learning online at home.

Elementary school teachers and other staff will be required to return to buildings beginning Feb. 19; secondary teachers and staff will return March 5.

Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the local teachers’ union, the Harford County Education Association, emphasized the need for consistency in planning.

“Please ensure that your plan includes the proper safety protocols so we have have the consistency that we all desperately need during this uncertain time,” she said.

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Harford schools have been completely virtual since Nov. 13, when COVID-19 metrics in the state and county began to spike. Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan, State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon and Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s acting deputy secretary for public health, hosted a press conference, urging all Maryland school systems to bring students back in some capacity by the beginning of March.

In doing so, the state released new guidance that no longer references thresholds for COVID-19 community transmission that county school officials had indicated were a major hurdle for an in-person return.

Bulson said there are still significant challenges in getting students back to school full time this year, as local school officials must still quarantine and isolate anyone who has been in contact with a person who has COVID-like symptoms or tests positive for the disease.

Officials also must be on the lookout for COVID-19 outbreaks within a school and determine if it is necessary to close an entire school — one elementary school had to be closed during the previous hybrid period in the fall, Bulson noted.

“What this means is, while we don’t have metrics to make district-wide [decisions], there is still a likelihood that we may need to close individual schools because of those two protocols,” he said.

Bulson described isolation and quarantine procedures in the past as “very disruptive,” citing the challenge of keeping classrooms staffed as community spread of COVID-19 began to climb.

“We were literally looking at hundreds of people out at a given time,” he said.

Teachers and students have remained in the all-virtual setting since Nov. 13, as the key metrics outlined in the state’s August guidance never returned below the baselines that indicated low community transmission.

As of Monday, those county metrics still remained above what was previously recommended — a 5% positivity rate and an average new case rate of 15 per 100,000 people. Harford’s positivity rate was reported to be 7.68% Monday and the average new case rate was 32.55 cases per 100,000, according to state data.

HCPS had always planned for in-person learning to resume at the levels where they had left off, so long as county transmission metrics were in-line with what was put forth in the state guidance.

The superintendent, in a message to parents last Thursday, noted that the new guidance was a “vast departure” to what was in place previously, but that it also indicated students returning to in-person instruction would still need to maintain physical distancing and adhere to other public health guidelines such as wearing masks in school.

Six-foot distancing requirements have limited how many people can be in a classroom at any given time, which is what has limited county officials from having more than one day of virtual instruction for most students, Bulson previously told The Aegis in the fall.

In order to comply with physical distancing guidelines, HCPS will stagger the use and capacity of common spaces, such as the cafeteria, and rearrange desks and other furniture to keep students farther apart. The school system is also looking into providing additional plexiglass in classrooms, according to the plan.

The timeline to return to in-person learning in March is designed to ensure as many staff can get vaccinated as possible before students come back — taking the vaccine is currently voluntary.

“The vaccine really is the best tool we have to help minimize the community spread of the virus,” Bulson said.

Two doses are required before a patient is considered fully vaccinated. Those who work in the education field could start getting their vaccines as of Jan. 19 — the first groups of HCPS employees who work in elementary schools began getting vaccinated Monday. Those who work in secondary schools start getting their shots Feb. 8.

The superintendent, as well as board member Dr. Roy Phillips, a physician, noted that while the vaccine gives patients a high level of protection from COVID-19, it is still undetermined whether or not vaccinated people can spread the disease.

“All mitigation strategies need to be in place until there’s herd immunity,” Phillips said.

The plan also indicates that staff will work with getting students “re-acclimated” to attending school.

“We understand that our students have had various experiences over the course of the past 10 months,” the updated plan states. There will be a focus on wellness, relationship building, orientation and re-acclimation, and accessing and addressing and academic and learning habit gaps, it says.

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The board also heard from several high school students Monday who talked about the severe impact online learning is having on their mental health and the mental health of their peers, noting youths have discussed dropping out of school and had thoughts of committing suicide.

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A COVID-19 decision team will also be formed to monitor the experience at each school and take action, depending on the severity of that experience, according to the plan. The team will work closely with the Harford County Health Department to determine what steps need to be taken if a school were to have a COVID-19 outbreak.

Health officer weighs in

The board also heard from Dr. David Bishai, Harford County’s new health officer. He noted, during his presentation, that HCPS’ decisions on reopening schools is under the control of school officials, not the health department.

“My role here is to be a resource of data and knowledge and experience in public health,” said Bishai, who also is a professor and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is a practicing physician in the emergency room at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.

He noted that the most recent nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths, which started in November of 2020, is experiencing a “slow descent.”

He stressed that COVID is “a disease that spares children,” with youths 10 and younger at the lowest risk, although the chance of serious illness and death is higher for teenagers, young adults and those in middle age, with people 75 and older at the greatest risk.

“Peak death rates happen dramatically after age 75,” said Bishai, who noted that the “minority community is hit worse, with both case rates and death rates.”

“A lot of the facts about what’s going on in schools are still emerging,” he said.

Bishai said he expects schools will open at some point this year, although he did not suggest a date to HCPS officials. He warned that doing so could lead to members of the wider community letting their guard down as they get the sense that society is returning to normalcy and they are not as vigilant about protecting themselves from COVID-19.

“The virus is looking for us to give it a chance to spread by letting our guard down,” he said.

Bishai stressed to school officials that he would need “a ton of help” once schools open to educate the community about the need to remain vigilant and continue wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance.

He explained that 6 feet of social distancing is ideal, as opposed to 3 feet, because it lowers the chance that droplets carrying the virus can spread from one person to another if they are farther apart.

In terms of vaccines, Bishai said Harford County is on track with its part in the national goal of 1 million injections per day. He emphasized the need to maintain and increase the supply of doses, noting that his agency has “the nurses ready to put it in all of your arms, if I just get the trucks full of vaccine.”

“I wish I could make this an easy decision,” he said of reopening schools. “It’s never going to be an easy decision, and there’s no decision that’s going to please everybody.”

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