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Harford schools stick with hybrid plan to return to in-person learning amid competing demands

The Harford County school system is sticking with its hybrid plan to bring students back for in-person learning on a gradual basis, even as some parents call for bringing more students back in a quicker fashion while students and teachers ask HCPS officials to apply the brakes out of concern for staff safety and remain in the current format of all-virtual classes.

Starting Monday, pupils in kindergarten through second grade will be returning to school for one day per week, while learning virtually the rest of the time.

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“I don’t see why you’re doing this now, this way, when teachers were promised that they would be able to work from home until January,” Aberdeen High School student Khiyali Pillalamarri said during the public comment portion of the Board of Education meeting Monday. “This is completely outrageous, and I don’t see whom it’s benefiting."

Pillalamarri said she has talked with students and teachers who have multiple concerns including keeping staff with pre-existing health conditions safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with poor internet service at school, as well as the time and money teachers have put into setting up classrooms in their homes.

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“I beg you to reconsider this decision and reopen schools later, or another way,” Pillalamarri said.

A number of teachers expressed similar concerns during the public comment period about remaining safe in their buildings — they and their colleagues began working in schools Oct. 12, a week before students begin coming back. They, as well as some spouses of teachers, also shared their struggles with virtual teaching.

Elementary school teacher Jacob Bennett, of Havre de Grace, provided words of encouragement to his fellow educators.

“You are not failing,” he said. “You are doing the best you can, and you are doing more than anyone could ever ask of you, more than 40 hours' worth of work.”

Bennett stressed that teachers “are doing awesome,” but they “are being failed” by the school system.

“Please keep your chin up and keep doing your best by kids, and know that that’s all that matters at the end of the day,” he added.

The parents who spoke delivered similar comments to those made during a protest by parents and students outside the A.A. Roberty Building, the Bel Air headquarters building for Harford County Public Schools and the site of Monday’s school board meeting.

HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson and a number of board members attended in person for the first time in months while other members participated via teleconference.

The parents and students protesting outside before and during the start of the school board meeting called for students to be able to return to school, citing the challenges of virtual learning such as technical issues, being isolated from peers and teachers and not being able to take part in sports or extracurricular activities.

Members of the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers' union, and their supporters staged a car caravan protest that happened around the same time as the parents' protest. Participants in the car caravan drove around the Roberty Building, blaring their horns while parents shouted at them and called for schools to reopen.

To move quicker or slower

Bulson acknowledged the protests by both groups while giving an update to the board on the planned return to in-person schooling. The superintendent noted that he thinks “we all, to some degree, agree that we need our students back in school.”

“Part of the challenge we’re facing, to make this even harder, is both groups can very rationally and reasonably point to science that supports their position,” Bulson said. “There is research on both sides of this equation that supports why we should either be moving more quickly or more slowly.”

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The plan developed by Bulson and his staff calls for kindergartners through second graders, as well as those in programs for students with special needs and the John Archer School, plus English Language Learners and some high school students in hands-on career and technology programs, to go back Monday with one day a week in school in a small group called a “cohort,” and learning virtually the rest of the week.

Teachers will be in the classroom providing simultaneous instruction to students learning in person and virtually from home.

School system staff and elementary school principals have developed a Frequently Asked Questions guide, which is available on the HCPS website for elementary school families. Another FAQ, which also is available on the school system website, has been developed for middle and high school families.

Third through fifth-grade students are scheduled to begin their one-day-a-week hybrid return to school on Nov. 4, and middle and high schoolers go back Nov. 16 — kindergartners through second graders start going to school two days a week on Nov. 16; HCPS officials anticipate having students at all grade levels in school two days a week starting Dec. 7, according to their Continuity of Learning Plan.

“We have a plan that I believe is deliberate,” Bulson said. “It’s very incremental; it’s a plan that kind of goes down the middle between those two groups, and compromises are often unpopular.”

School system leaders initially planned to provide a Chromebook computer to each student in HCPS who needed it before the school year started Sept. 8, but issues on the manufacturer’s end meant not all arrived in time.

Bulson updated the board about the delivery schedule, which is expected to end by Monday or Tuesday at the latest, with Chromebooks being distributed to all students.

“With that schedule, we will have the full 27,000 devices that we ordered on May 25,” the superintendent said. “This has been kind of a frustrating delay — we’re not alone in this delay, but we’re glad to soon have it behind us and have those devices distributed to all of our students.”

Still 6 feet apart

A key factor preventing more students going back to school at a faster rate is state-issued guidance on social distancing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that schools keep students, staff and anyone else on school property at least 6 feet apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“The CDC also recommends that when maintaining 6 feet of distance is not feasible, to try keeping as close to 6 feet apart as possible, recognizing that the closer you are, the more likely it is for respiratory droplets to be passed between people,” the Maryland State Department of Education stated on Page 6 of its Aug. 27 guidance to local school systems, cited by Bulson.

“While there is some evidence that shorter distances may be adequate, [Maryland Department of Health] requires that schools make all reasonable efforts to implement the 6-foot distancing rule to the greatest extent possible,” the guidance continues.

Bulson said he “would contend that it’s not for the school system to determine whether” the guidance on social distancing should be changed, stressing that it is “the role of the health department to determine when it is safe to not be following the 6-foot guidance.”

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Keeping students and staff 6 feet apart means most classrooms can accommodate 10 to 12 students, while the average HCPS class size is about 25 students, Bulson noted. He said the school system will have “the very best data” on student attendance and managing classroom spacing once the hybrid plan begins next week.

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That, in turn, affects how soon officials can increase the number of days students can be in school, depending on how many families decide to send their children back and how many opt to remain virtual.

“If we have enough that are staying out completely, and we believe that half of the students coming in still keeps us at a class size that we can support, we will move to a second day as soon as we know we can support that,” Bulson said.

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