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Harford Learning Support Centers will open in stages as officials work to fill all staff positions

The Learning Support Centers operated by Harford County Public Schools in the coming academic year will open in stages through early October as school system leaders work to fill all of the open staff positions in the centers.

“We now have a staged entry plan for the learning centers,” HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson said during an interview with The Aegis — the school system also provided that information to families via email and phone and posted a formal announcement on its website.

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Middle and high school students will report to the learning support centers when the 2020-21 school year begins Tuesday, Sept. 8, along with elementary students who do not have internet access at home, who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, who are English-Language Learners, or those whose parents are classified as “essential employees,” including educators. Kindergarten students who meet any of those qualifications will go to the centers on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

The remaining elementary students in kindergarten through second grade will report to the learning support centers on Sept. 22, followed by third through fifth-graders on Oct. 6, according to the announcement.

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There are, as of late last week, about 160 vacancies that must be filled in order to fully staff the learning support centers. Employees will supervise small groups of students during the school day as the youths are taught virtually, have meals and participate in in-person activities. School system officials are working to ensure there is a ratio of two staffers to every eight students.

Bulson described keeping groups limited to 10 people — to adhere to CDC guidelines — and ensuring adult staffers remain with the same group so they do not interact with other “cohorts” and risk spreading COVID-19, as “the greatest challenge with staffing the learning centers.”

The school system also must comply with state regulations related to background checks for new hires. Bulson cited House Bill 486, passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2019. The law, meant to prevent sexual misconduct and sexual abuse of children, covers those who have applied as of July 1, 2019, to work with a public school district, private school or a contractor with public and private schools, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

The background checks, with their 20-day waiting period, mean not all new personnel hired to work in the learning support centers will be in place by the first day of school on Sept. 8, according to Bulson.

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“We do have more new hires coming,” Bulson said.

Harford school officials are working to fill 600 positions to staff 41 learning support centers set up in school buildings around the county. People can apply online to be a learning support center assistant — more information is available through the HCPS website.

The positions are being filled with new hires, current school system employees who volunteer for the slots as well as employees assigned to positions not filled by the other two groups. About 5,000 people work for Harford County Public Schools.

“Existing HCPS staff will be needed and assigned to fill remaining gaps after all new hires and current employee volunteers have been placed,” Jean Mantegna, assistant superintendent for human resources, said in an emailed statement.

She noted that “we have received 220 applications for the Learning Support Center Assistant vacancy and welcome more!” The school system has hired 139 people from that pool of applicants to work in the centers, according to Mantegna.

Officials have been looking, within the school system, at prospective staffers such as people whose current jobs cannot be done virtually. They also have looked to private childcare providers who could provide some staff, according to Bulson.

“We have a number of potential new hires coming, but we didn’t have the 160 positions we needed [filled],” he said.

Illness prevention

Some staffers have expressed concern about working in the learning support centers and the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. School nurses will be on duty in each center, charged with conducting “monitoring and surveillance.”

“In the event that a student or staff member becomes ill with COVID-19, or a COVID-19 like illness, school nurses will adhere to the latest Maryland Department of Health guidance regarding isolation and quarantine procedures,” according to Jillian Lader, the school system’s manager of communications.

Any staff member who has a concern about safety should report it to the administrator in their building “as soon as possible,” according to Lader.

The school system also has released a nearly 10-minute video outlining HCPS’ measures to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic.

“No person positive with COVID-19, with symptoms, or who has been exposed to a person with COVID-19 in the last 14 days may visit HCPS,” the video narrator says.

Harford County families also are encouraged to practice prevention of COVID-19 at home, with measures such as monitoring children for a high fever and other symptoms of the illness, keeping a supply of masks or other “fabric face coverings” for their children to wear on the bus and at school, as well as practicing regular hand washing.

Staff at the learning support centers will clean and sanitize the facilities on a regular basis, plus wear masks, ensure social distancing is enforced, keep students in small groups and cohorts, emphasize hand washing and maintain “robust plans for illness response and communication,” according to the video.

“As we continue our COVID-19 recovery efforts, and we look to the new school year, we don’t know exactly what will come in the whole year ahead,” the narrator states. “We do know that whatever learning looks like, whether virtual or in person, together we can move forward.”

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