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Harford County

5 takeaways from Harford schools’ town hall on virtual learning, including keeping schedules close to normal

Although Harford County Public Schools are set to be fully virtual when the next school year starts in September, HCPS leaders as well as teachers and administrators are working to make an average day resemble in-person schooling as much as possible — with multiple details that still need to be finalized.

“Our goal is to connect with kids every day and to connect just like they would in a traditional in-person experience,” Michael O’Brien, executive director of secondary school instruction and performance, said during a online town hall meeting Thursday evening.


The Parent Academy Town Hall happened live via Microsoft Teams and lasted slightly more than one hour. It was a chance for the public to ask questions of HCPS leaders about the school system’s still-developing plans for how things will operate during the 2020-21 school year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout Maryland and the rest of the nation.

Superintendent Sean Bulson announced via a letter to families Thursday morning that classes will be virtual, with teachers and students interacting online, for the first semester. Families have the option of sending their children to Learning Support Centers set up in Harford’s 54 schools, where small groups of students can gather in person under the supervision of an HCPS staffer while still being taught virtually.


Bulson and other HCPS officials provided more details about the plan during the town hall, which had about 2,900 participants at its peak time. People submitted more than 1,500 questions using Microsoft Teams’ text feature, and school system officials answered a handful of them, focusing on those asked most frequently.

The superintendent called the level of participation “tremendous,” saying that “it’s great to have people out and interested” in the planning process for next year, which starts Sept. 8. “I know this is such an important topic, and we’re so pleased you’re able to join us in this forum,” he told viewers.

Jillian Lader, manager of communications, pledged that all of the questions would be collected and that officials will “do our best” to answer them “and post those answers to those questions on the recovery web page as soon as possible.” The town hall also was recorded, and officials expect to post it on their various online platforms, such as the HCPS website and social media channels.

Host Mary Beth Stapleton, manager of family and community partnerships for the school system, described the town hall as “just a starting point,” telling participants that “we can’t necessarily answer all of your questions this evening, but we can begin the conversation.”

Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s town hall.

School days closer to normal

The first semester of the next school year runs from Sept. 8 to Jan. 22, 2021; HCPS central office leaders are working with school administrators and teachers to develop procedures to ensure students who are learning from home and at the learning centers have days that are as close as possible to what they would experience if schools were open and operating normally.

There will be some differences, however. The length of the school day will vary depending on grade level — town hall participant Laurie Bates asked if a typical day will consist of “5-plus hours in virtual classrooms.”

Kindergartners will have an approximately two-hour day with a mixture of “some independent work and some live interaction with their teacher” online. First and second-graders will have a three-hour day, and four hours will be dedicated to third through fifth-graders, according to Renee Villareal, executive director of elementary school instruction and performance.


Elementary students will have “many opportunities” to interact with their teachers and classmates during the day, which will start with a morning class meeting. They will then work in small groups for lessons in subjects such as math, reading, science and social studies. Each class will be 15 to 20 minutes for younger children and 30 to 45 minutes for older kids.

“We’re excited about the type of model that we’ve developed, and we’re still working on it as we speak,” Villareal said of how the day will be structured.

Middle and high school students can expect “a regular bell schedule, where they connect with their teachers and their classmates every day.” The days will consist of six to seven class periods for middle schoolers and four periods for high schoolers, as well as time for breaks and an hour for lunch, O’Brien said.

“We want to build in enough time that students have lots of breaks, time with teachers, and also the ability to eat lunch, whether at home or at a meal center,” he said.

The school system will have letter grades for the next school year, as opposed to when officials allowed students to receive a pass/fail grade at the end of the prior year.

“I think the pass/fail approach we took in the spring was necessary in that setting, but it’s time to get back to a more traditional grading and a better sense of accountability,” Bulson said.


Beyond the books

Officials also are looking for ways to “introduce more social-emotional learning and more mental health supports into everything we’re doing,” as well as incorporate more “cultural responsiveness” in the curriculum next year, according to the superintendent.

School leaders are confronting what Bulson called “a different crisis” of racism, in addition to the pandemic crisis.

“It’s been a very important conversation,” he said of the national dialogue that has happened in recent months following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May and the subsequent protests against police brutality and racism.

School officials also must determine how fall sports will be handled, depending on the directions coming from the state, as well as hands-on courses such as those offered at Harford Technical High School, academically rigorous magnet programs such as the Science and Mathematics Academy and International Baccalaureate, even extracurricular activities such as band and non-academic courses such as physical education.

“We’re working through all of those issues, and I know our teachers are working really hard to make that curriculum fit the virtual model,” O’Brien said. “It’s not an easy lift, but we’re working on it.”

Initial plan had ‘flaws we couldn’t reconcile'

Officials initially put out a recovery plan that laid out three scenarios for the next school year, including an all-virtual option, having schools fully open for in-person classes and a hybrid stage with students in school for part of the week and learning from home the rest of the week. HCPS had planned to go with the hybrid option this fall, in line with the state’s and county’s stage of recovery in the governor’s plan.


Harford school leaders made what Bulson called “a significant modification” to their plan after presenting the draft to the Board of Education Monday night and considering the public’s response to it.

The first draft, released July 9, “had some flaws in it that we couldn’t reconcile,” Bulson said Thursday. Those flaws included how families would manage child care on days when students are not in school, how to handle child care for HCPS employees on days they are working in school, the challenge of finding enough substitute teachers to handle the workload of educators who cannot teach in person because they are at a high risk of getting COVID-19, plus the initial proposal that educators would teach in a “synchronous” manner, managing students in person and virtually at the same time.

“I think would have created a difficult challenge to overcome instructionally, and I just don’t believe we could have delivered the quality of product that we need to deliver for our students,” he said of synchronous teaching.

The superintendent also noted recent national polling indicating that 71% of parents are not comfortable sending children back to school during the pandemic, plus the fact that four other school districts in Maryland have announced an all-virtual format for the fall. Bulson touched on the weekly meetings he has with other school superintendents around the state.

“These are all folks who, like me, like our [HCPS] administration, like our board, absolutely want to see students back in school, learning in a face-to-face setting, as soon as we can possibly do it in a safe way,” he said.

‘Dramatically different’ virtual classes

Harford officials decided to go with a full semester, rather than a quarter, of virtual classes because many healthcare professionals have expressed concerns about the “really big challenge” expected to come in November when the annual flu season starts, and it will be very difficult to distinguish between COVID-19 and flu symptoms, according to Bulson.


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He said the virtual instruction in the fall is expected to be “dramatically different” from what HCPS students and their families had in the spring when schools were closed and lessons were delivered online, with teachers posting assignments on the internet or recording videos of themselves giving a lecture and then posting it.

“We’re working diligently to prepare robust curricula and daily learning schedules for live virtual instruction between teachers and students, and independent learning,” Bulson said.

The letter laying out the current all-virtual plan for the first semester was issued Thursday morning. Another update is slated for early August, and the final version will be presented to the school board for a vote Aug. 10; the plan must be submitted to the state by Aug. 14.

Learning center survey coming Tuesday

A survey will be sent to families Tuesday to determine the level of interest in sending children to the learning centers, according to Eric Davis, chief of administration. He said the centers will be “open to all families.”

“We need to have very clear understanding of how many people we need to be able to accommodate” in the centers, said Bulson.

Officials “hope to accommodate everyone,” but they must balance that with being able to maintain social distancing in the buildings and ensuring there are enough staff to supervise the students, according to Bulson.


“It is important that people be able to go to work [and] have a safe place for their children that is both supervised and has access to internet,” he said.