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Harford County schools unveil three-phase plan for gradual return to in-person learning

Aberdeen Middle School students and teachers get settled in to their rooms at the Learning Support Center at Aberdeen Middle School for the first day of school Tuesday.
Aberdeen Middle School students and teachers get settled in to their rooms at the Learning Support Center at Aberdeen Middle School for the first day of school Tuesday. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Harford County Public Schools could allow more students, particularly those with greater needs, to return to buildings for “in-person activities" within the next month, as long as coronavirus health metrics stay low.

A presentation posted in advance of the Board of Education’s Monday meeting laid out the rationale for bringing more students back into school buildings or, conversely, potentially scaling back operations if coronavirus cases spike. Major drivers of a return to in-person learning are the county’s weekly average positivity rate and weekly average new cases rate per 100,000 people, the presentation states.

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As of Sept. 10, the data the presentation drew on, Harford County had a positivity rate of 4.3% — higher than the state’s 3.76% rate. In that same time, Harford’s weekly new case rate per 100,000 people was 9.68, again, slightly higher than the state’s 9.61 rate.

As of Monday, Harford’s numbers increased slightly; it now has a 4.33% positivity rate and 9.9 cases per 100,000 people, according to data provided by the state.

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Depending on the movement of those metrics, the county could push forward with gradually reopening schools. However, should schools progress in the plan but Harford County sees an increase in those same metrics down the road, it could revert to the current all-virtual learning environment or one that is even more restrictive.

The increasing metrics, which began recently for Harford County, worried Superintendent Sean Bulson. Overspilling those limits could mean further restricting schools.

“We are approaching it, which is concerning," Bulson said at Monday’s board meeting.

Spikes at the state level and incidents requiring quarantines may also influence the decision to move ahead with the board of education’s three-step plan.

“We will reassess moving to more restrictive steps if the new case rate increases by 2/100,000 or the positivity rate increases by 1.5%,” the presentation states.

The plan comes after Gov. Larry Hogan strongly encouraged schools to begin the process of reopening, and Maryland schools superintendent Karen Salmon announced $10 million in grants that would be available to school systems that open their doors to students.

Harford County Public Schools was among eight districts in the state that had not submitted a plan to the state outlining a return of students to the classroom during the 2020 calendar year.

School system staff had initially proposed a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction, but quickly changed plans for all-online instruction with some students attending Learning Support Centers in school buildings after receiving feedback on the original plan.

The present Continuity of Learning Plan calls for an all-virtual first semester, which HCPS moved forward with starting last week. But Bulson has previously said the school system would work toward bringing more students back into the classroom, so long as it was safe to do so.

Schools are currently at the beginning of step two in their three-step plan for returning to classrooms, according to the draft plan. Step two indicates moderate transmission and supports limited in-person activities. Currently, all learning is done virtually, and learning centers support an 8:2 student to staff ratio.

Provided that positivity rates remain below 5% and new cases per 100,000 hover between 5 and 15, the board could consider moving ahead in the plan after four weeks, pacing out limited hybrid learning for some grade levels and in-person activities for small groups of students with the “greatest need,” the presentation states.

At the board meeting, Bulson clarified the school system would experiment with bringing in small cohorts of special needs students and younger students. An expansion of those groups receiving in-person instruction would likely start with lower grades and move up. More specifics should be available next week, he said.

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The next step in phase two would allow for more in-person activities for small groups along with expanding some group sizes and grade levels served in the hybrid model.

The third and final step, when transmission is low, allows for a return to in-person classes across all grade levels if social-distancing requirements have been lifted or modified at the state level. Virtual learning options will remain available, the presentation states. The positivity rate and new cases per 100,000 benchmarks have yet to be set by the state, but the HCPS presentation indicates a fewer than 5 new cases per 100,000 threshold be met in that phase.

If social distancing guidelines are still in place, in-person options during step three will look the same as they do under step two of the plan. Masks will also be recommended, and hand washing and cleaning protocols will be put in place, according to the presentation. Availability of personal protective equipment will also govern the number of small groups that will be taught.

Bulson said that returning even half of the students to school buildings for in-person instruction would be impossible with distancing guidelines and isolation requirements should students or staff exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. Already, 49 students and staff had to be isolated from learning centers because a select number of them were displaying symptoms of the virus. They were isolated and quarantined.

“We had 49 students and adults that were excluded today because of a small number of people who exhibited symptoms," Bulson said at the meeting. ”If we have many times the number of students in schools and those numbers are multiplying, that would be a disruption."

Should the county’s COVID-19 positivity rates exceed 5% and the new case rate jump to 15 per 100,000 residents, however, the plan will revert and no in-person activities would be allowed and all instruction would be performed virtually, according to the draft plan.

Additionally, returning to in-person learning would force schools to bring staff back. Bulson said the school system sent out a survey to parents and teachers to gauge their interest in returning for in-person instruction; nowhere near enough teachers expressed interest in returning to schools. As the plan moves forward, that will force schools to call teachers back into work.

“We will not be able to deliver on a plan based solely on volunteers,” he said. “We will need people to return to work.”

At the meeting, well over an hour of comments were read by board members. Some praised HCPS' caution in returning children to school facilities, but more excoriated the board and Bulson for delaying a return to in-person instruction.

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Harsh words like “disgusted” and “failed” were faithfully read during the public comment period. At least one person called on Bulson, personally, to resign.

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Submitted in writing, the comments described issues with virtual learning, including disengaged students, confusing webpages, technical issues and general confusion. Though the negative impressions were numerous, some said their children were thriving with virtual learning.

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