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Some Harford County students back in classrooms for first week of hybrid learning

A small group of Churchville Elementary School students walked through a hallway Thursday morning. Led by a teacher, the children kept socially distanced, masks over their faces and their arms filled with laptop computers, headphones and other classroom gear.

“You’re holding your Chromebook so safely — I love it,” Churchville Principal Lisa Minutoli told one girl as the group walked past her and Assistant Principal Bobby Potestio.

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Students returned to Churchville, as well as other public schools throughout Harford County, this week as the school system began hybrid learning for students in kindergarten through second grade. It is the first step of a long-term initiative to bring students back to school gradually and ensure they, as well as teachers and staff, can remain safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’ve been genuinely excited about being in the building,” Potestio said of Churchville students.

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Harford County Public Schools, which serves more than 38,000 students, started the 2020-21 school year in September with all-virtual classes and the majority of students learning online from home. Some attended classes in Learning Support Centers set up in various schools, giving students whose parents cannot be with them at home a safe place to be during the day with adult staff serving as proctors.

School system leaders initially planned to remain virtual through the end of the first semester in January, with teachers leading their virtual classes from home.

Operations plans underwent a major shift, however, after the school year got underway. Teachers reported back to their buildings Oct. 12, and hybrid learning for kindergartners through second graders began Monday.

Small groups of students in those grades go to school one day a week and learn from home the rest of the time, with a different group of students reporting to their buildings each day. Third through fifth-graders are scheduled to start hybrid learning Nov. 4, and middle and high schoolers go back one day a week Nov. 16. School system officials hope to have students at all grade levels in school two days a week by Dec. 7.

The students going back to Churchville Elementary for hybrid learning this week join a “core group” of about 60 children — in kindergarten through fifth grade — who are in school in person for five days a week. That core group includes those who began attending the learning support center at the beginning of the year and others who returned more recently as their parents are HCPS employees, according to school administrators.

Churchville Elementary has a total student population of 341, and administrators expect to have 196 students at all grade levels — including the hybrid one-day-a-week rotation and those in the five-day cohort — circulating through the building by the week of Nov. 4.

“We really see this as the first steps to bringing more and more kids back into the building,” Minutoli said of the start of hybrid classes this week.

The principal said she has been seeing new faces among the children getting off the bus each day this week, and it is clear that the students are smiling behind their masks.

“You can tell by their eyes how happy they are to be here,” she said.

Fifth-grade student Johnnie McLain has been at Churchville since the start of the school year. The 10-year-old, who participates in the learning support center, is the only student in his section of the fifth grade to be in the building in person. There are three sections of fifth grade, and a few students in the other sections also are in person, while the remainder learn virtually.

Johnnie confirmed that he is looking forward to seeing some of his classmates in person next month, noting that “it feels a little bit better than seeing them online.”

He praised the planned return to school for more students, especially for those who don’t have heaters in their homes as the weather gets colder.

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Minutoli said Churchville staff are working to make students' experience as close to normal as possible; they want to give students a “true sense of school,” Potestio added.

“And community,” Minutoli noted.

Virtual plus in-person instruction

In each classroom, teachers wearing masks worked simultaneously with students sitting at their desks in the classroom — also wearing masks — and the majority of their pupils learning virtually at home.

The teachers sat at their desks, addressing the virtual students appearing on the teacher’s computer screen, as well as those in their classroom. School staffers were on hand as classroom assistants, and special educators worked with children one-on-one, either in a separate part of the classroom or over a computer.

Most of the students' desks were several feet apart, but two children in a first grade classroom had their desks right next to each other. Because the pair are siblings, HCPS has allowed them to remain together in schools and on buses.

Another first grade student, 6-year-old Genna Haines, sat at her desk, wearing her mask and a set of purple headphones as she and her classmates recited “snap words" — common short-syllable words such as “like,” “look” and “fun” — projected on a screen.

Their teacher indicated that her mouth was wide with pleasure, behind her mask, that the children could recite all of the words by heart and noted they can use the short snap words to understand other words and how they work together.

Genna, who is in her first year at Churchville, described the school as “awesome.” She has been there since the start of the year in the learning support center.

“I like to hang out with my friends,” Genna said when asked what she likes about school, noting that she also thinks learning over the computer is fun and that she feels safe at school, with its multiple protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Mask wearing was ubiquitous among adults and children, and Potestio pointed out brightly-colored hoof prints that have been painted on hallway floors as a social-distancing guide for the students — the hoof prints are inspired by the school’s mascot, the Charger.

Signs are also posted throughout the building promoting wearing of masks, social distancing and avoiding touching the “T-Zone” of one’s face, meaning the area of the eyes, nose and mouth, to prevent germs getting into the body.

Keeping all students engaged

Teachers in each setting worked to keep their online and in-person students engaged. Second-grade teacher Jen Kreis, who had four students in her classroom, guided all of her pupils through a spelling lesson.

Kreis showed images such as those of a nurse and a bird with the correct and incorrect spelling of their identifiers underneath. Students wrote what they thought was the correct spelling on small whiteboards and held them up at their teacher’s request.

“Give yourselves a pat on the back, that was such great work,” Kreis told the class.

Art teacher Marie Hoppenstein gave her students a lesson in creating a Halloween scene, with jack-o-lanterns and bare trees, using colored pencils. Hoppenstein stressed how the students could illustrate perspective by exerting more or less pressure on their pencils, creating lighter colors to indicate backgrounds and bolder colors for objects in the foreground.

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Music teacher Alexis Boyd, who had several in-person students, played a tune on the piano in her classroom before turning back to her computer and explaining to the class that she had added a harmony to her piece of music, describing the harmony as “combinations of notes that we put together.”

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Fourth-grade teacher Karen Yancone started her 23rd year in education this year. She started the year teaching virtually from home and returned to Churchville Elementary on Oct. 12.

“It’s honestly been great, I have enjoyed having the kids in here,” she said during a break between classes.

Yancone said her students have been “very good” about wearing masks and social distancing so far, noting that “it’s just a habit now.” Students also wash their hands several times a day and she sanitizes the classroom on a regular basis.

Those who are in school in person have to remain apart, but they can still socialize with each other and play games at recess — they can kick a ball back and forth, but they can’t touch it with their hands, she noted.

“At least they’re able to interact and have those conversations,” Yancone said.

She also described how she and students carefully handle books in the classroom for independent reading sessions, in that she hands a book to a student who then keeps it in a bag and puts the book on a shelf when done, leaving it sitting for about seven days.

“We are trying to get them off of their devices and reading,” Yancone said.

She also described how she is able to keep the online students engaged through Microsoft Teams and other online tools, saying she is “constantly going between the chat and the participant list” during class meetings in Teams.

Students can click the raised hand icon when they want to participate in class, and they are able to communicate either verbally through their computer microphone or by text in the Teams chat feature.

Yancone also discussed how teachers have been sharing ideas about how to improve virtual education. She noted how much it helps to be able to turn to colleagues who understand her situation, as “not every day is sunshine.”

“Everybody has just pulled together and risen to the challenge,” Minutoli said. “Our community has been so supportive, and our teachers have truly embraced virtual teaching — and they’ve built strong relationships with students, both in person and virtually.”

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