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Harford schools will have virtual learning through late January, with limited space open for internet access, staff support

Harford County Public Schools’ students will be taught virtually for the first half of the 2020-2021 school year. However, the school system will offer “Learning Support Centers” at schools where a limited number of students will have internet access and supervision by an HCPS employee.

A town hall meeting on plans for next year is scheduled for 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. tonight. The meeting can be viewed online via Microsoft Teams, with a link available on the school system’s website. Superintendent Sean Bulson will give a brief presentation on the plan, and then participants will be able to ask questions.

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“There is general agreement that safe, in-person learning would be the first preference, but the current conditions make it impossible for large groups of students to be in school at one time,” according to a letter from Bulson issued Thursday morning.

Harford’s draft recovery plan released last week outlined three options for a return to school in the fall, all coinciding with the stages of Gov. Larry Hogan’s Roadmap to Recovery.

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The options included all-virtual learning, which was the operating method for the spring; schools being open with the option of taking classes virtually; or a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes, with students in school part of the week and learning virtually the rest of the week.

The state and county have been in Stage 2 of recovery since mid-June. Under the school system’s original plan, that meant Harford schools would’ve employed a hybrid operating method.

Bulson said in an interview that the new plan is an attempt to “walk a line between the safety concerns of having too many students in one place at one time while also knowing we need a safe place where students can be during the day that has reliable internet and adult supervision.”

“We’re trying to walk the line between those two really important beats.”

Bulson and the Harford County Board of Education had received feedback on the draft plan Monday at the regular school board meeting.

The new plan, Bulson said Thursday, “is an evolution of what we were doing Monday. It’s a response to some really overwhelming feedback, and an attempt to address some of the harder-to-address feedback we received Monday.”

Much of the feedback to the school system fell along the lines of one group of people who want schools open for in-person classes and another who prefer distance learning as the safer option, according to Bulson’s letter.

School system leaders determined that the Stage 2 hybrid model initially proposed “does not allow our students and staff to adequately practice social distancing, and it creates an insurmountable logistical challenge for parents in many cases,” Bulson stated.

“Additionally, due to several health and safety concerns, many of our educators may not be able to be present for an in-person model which would have impacted our ability to provide adequate supervision and instruction,” he continued.

Learning Support Centers

The revised plan released Thursday “relies exclusively on virtual learning while providing opportunities for students who need a safe, supervised place during the school day,” according to Bulson’s letter.

Officials will offer “a limited number” of spaces in each school, called HCPS Learning Support Centers, where students who need access to a safe location to learn can go and have supervision from a school system employee as well as internet access.

The hope, Bulson said in an interview, is to offer learning support centers at every school, so that students can stay in a setting that is familiar to them. But that will depend on demand and capacity.

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Staff at the learning center will most likely not be teachers, who will be delivering virtual instruction daily, Bulson said. Instead, staff will serve as more of a “proctor.” Those employees may be HCPS administrators or the school system might hire the equivalent of long-term substitutes for those roles, he said.

Group sizes in the learning centers will likely be less than 10, including the instructor.

“Keeping the group sizes small is the goal,” Bulson said. “We’ll likely open multiple rooms in the building, but this helps us stay more consistent with CDC guidance with small groups that stay together and don’t mix with other groups.”

“We’re hoping we can keep those numbers under 10,” he said, “then that group of 10 won’t be mixing with other groups of students during the day. We couldn’t deliver that in the hybrid model at all levels.”

Bus transportation and meals will be available through the learning centers, where students will be taught by an instructor who is working remotely.

School officials will send a survey to HCPS families next week to determine the level of interest in attending the support centers.

“Prior to finalizing this plan, HCPS will have to weigh demand for attending the HCPS Learning Support Centers against our capacity to staff them safely,” Bulson noted.

He said there were a number of variables that could contribute to why people might decide to send their children to the learning centers.

“Some parents have the flexibility to stay home and work, others do not,” Bulson said. “We don’t want to put parents in a position where they have to choose between going to work or leaving their child unsupervised.”

Whether students will be able to drop-in a few days a week or will have to be there the entire week isn’t something school officials have worked out just yet, Bulson said.

Upgrades to curriculum, technology access

The school system will provide, to students learning from home, Chromebook computers to kindergartners through eighth graders and Windows laptops to ninth through 12th graders. Windows laptops also will be provided to teachers, according to the letter.

The school system “is currently undertaking trials of cellular hotspots throughout the county, to provide Internet access to all students,” Bulson stated.

In the letter, he said “dramatic upgrades” were being made to the curriculum and professional development to ensure virtual instruction is more interactive and engaging than during the spring.

“We have a lot of teachers helping to write curriculum this summer so that we have a better detailed, more comprehensive lessons in place,” Bulson said.

Virtual learning will continue through at least the end of the first semester on Jan. 22.

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The school system will review conditions and guidance from state and local health departments in November, and consider extending virtual learning into the second half of the school year.

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Public feedback

HCPS must submit its finalized plan to the state by Aug. 14. The superintendent indicated at Monday’s school board meeting that an update to the draft plan would come out sometime next week.

“This particular evolution has come on pretty quickly, so not sure when we’ll release the next one,” he said Thursday.

He chose to send a letter and graphic detailing the changes Thursday because one of the findings from the school system’s digital learning survey issued in the spring was that the community wanted more communication sooner, even if it wasn’t finalized.

“It’s unusual for us to release something in such a draft form,” he said. “Summer is moving by very quickly, and as we’ve demonstrated, we’re very much open to feedback and willing to make adjustments to improve this.”

Thursday night’s town hall had been scheduled for Wednesday, but was postponed shortly after 1 p.m. that day because of the overhaul of the recovery plan. The new plan was supposed to be released at 10 a.m., but was not posted until 11:30 a.m. Thursday — six hours before the town hall.

Recognizing the short window to review the changes, Bulson said there would be more opportunities for feedback prior to the Aug. 10 school board meeting, but he didn’t have particulars yet. That meeting is when a final version of the plan is set to be approved by the Board of Education to be sent to the state.

Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, said Thursday that the local teachers’ union supports the modified plan, noting it addresses many of the public concerns expressed previously.

The all-virtual format does bring up a different set of concerns, however, in terms of inequities among HCPS’ more than 38,000 students, such as access to the internet, according to Crawford-Smick.

“We are pleased that HCPS is working toward a plan to mitigate some of those inequities,” she said.

Crawford-Smick praised the learning center concept, since it gives children “a place to be, and to be able to do their work safely.”

“With the three-phased approach, we felt that that was problematic because the district was using all their resources to triage three vastly different possibilities for the 2020-21 school year,” she said of the initial draft plan.

The updated plan allows HCPS leaders to “focus their energy on doing one thing well — providing a robust, interactive digital learning experience for our students while also providing a safe place for students who need” it, Crawford-Smick said.

The school system also has put forth professional development options this summer so teachers can get additional training on providing online instruction. The five days in late August for teacher orientation and training prior to the start of classes also will be dedicated to professional development for online teaching so “classroom teachers are prepared for a digital learning experience,” she said.

Many HCPS curriculum development teams have been working through the summer to create sample lesson plans and “a library of materials” for teachers, too, according to Crawford-Smick.

The superintendent encouraged parents, teachers and anyone else to weigh in by sending feedback to HCPSTogether@hcps.org.

Other school district plans

Harford’s new plan is more in line with what other school districts around the state have been proposing, although thus far is the only one to include the idea of learning centers.

Bulson said he hadn’t heard of any other districts in the state using a similar plan.

Monica Goldson said her administration will reevaluate conditions in December. If safe to do so, students will have the option of returning part-time in February with a staggered schedule where students learn in-person twice a week and virtually the other three days.

Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams said Tuesday he is leaning toward remote learning with a phased-in return as the school board considers how to reopen schools for the 2020-21 academic year.

Hogan on Wednesday said state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon would hold a news conference next week to further discuss the schools situation for the fall.

”We all want our children to get back to school as soon as possible, but only if and when we can do it in a way that keeps our students and teachers safe,” he said. Hogan added that “we cannot and should not rush” the decision on schools.

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