Harford County schools’ superintendent said staff will work through the weekend to adjust its return plan to start bring students back for in-person instruction after the governor and state superintendent called on all Maryland school systems to have kids in classrooms by March.
“My hope is to have some sort of draft document up by the time of the [Harford County Board of Education] meeting Monday or at least immediately after the meeting,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said in an interview Thursday.
He and his senior staff will digest the state’s new guidance and make necessary changes to their plans. “Logistically,” Bulson said, HCPS should be able to meet the state’s March 1 deadline.
The school system had a plan in place to return students to classrooms under a hybrid method once COVID-19 metrics in the county improved, as it had done for a few weeks in October and November before coronavirus cases spiked.
Gov. Larry Hogan and Karen Salmon, the state superintendent, said at a news conference Thursday that “a growing consensus has emerged, both here in Maryland and across the country, that there is no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools.”
“While school systems have made strides with remote learning, far too many students remain unable to thrive in such an environment and there can be no debating that online learning has taken an unmistakable toll on students, families and educators,” Hogan said.
Hearing the governor’s announcement brought up intense emotions for Karen Schandelmeier of Bel Air, a parent of two HCPS students and founder of the Reopen Harford County Schools page on Facebook.
”I feel like I could cry right now, because I’ve been fighting to get my children back in the classroom since July of 2020,” she said.
Schandelmeier praised the governor, noting that “he basically laid down the hammer” to compel local officials to reopen schools. Schandelmeier and many other HCPS parents have participated in protests outside the HCPS headquarters in Bel Air, lobbied Board of Education members, the county government, County Council and state leaders.
She and representatives of 11 other Reopen groups around the state took part in a call last week with several of Hogan’s top aides.
”I feel like we won a battle, almost, when you fight for so long for something,” she said.
State guidelines for schools have been revised with options that state officials deem safe even at current levels of spread, Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary for public health, said at Thursday’s press conference.
Chan said that studies show spread within schools is relatively low if schools abide by proper mitigation and safety measures.
“There is little evidence that school reopening is a major driver of overall community spread,” she said.
Now, local school officials must modify their existing return to school plans with the new state guidance, which Bulson said no one at HCPS had received written copies of by 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
Bulson said his biggest concern coming out of the governor’s press conference was how to bring certain students back for daily, in-person instruction while also adhering to social distancing, which remains a key part of the guidance.
“The reason that’s an issue is the social distancing is the greatest barrier to having all the kids in a room, and so the question is, if there is an expectation that we follow the social distancing, but a similar expectation that we put students in any sort of daily instruction ... then we have a conflict in the guidance that we need to work through,” Bulson said.
The state guidance presents two options for a return to in-person instruction.
The first calls for daily in-person learning for students with disabilities, special learning needs, those who’ve struggled remotely and those in career and technical paths; daily in-person instruction for elementary students (unless spread requires hybrid); and hybrid for secondary students.
Option No. 2 would offer daily in-person instruction for those with “unique educational needs,” phased-in hybrid learning for elementary students, and remote learning for secondary.
Del. Mike Griffith, a Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties, said that the governor’s press conference was a welcome sight. Griffith has been advocating for in-person instruction through the pandemic, including hosting an August news conference with other Republican lawmakers to ask Harford County Public Schools to consider alternatives to completely virtual learning.
“The science says it is safe to go to school,” Griffith said. “There is no reason why not at this point.”
Hogan said he cannot order the schools to reopen, “but I want to make it perfectly clear: I will do everything I possibly can do within the law to push to get Maryland’s children back in classrooms.” He referenced situations across the country: Chicago cut off pay to teachers who refuse to teach in person, South Carolina is yanking licenses and Ohio is only vaccinating teachers who commit to returning to classrooms.
He and Salmon also sent a letter to the head of the state teachers’ union telling her “roadblocks to resuming in-person instruction must cease.”
Harford County Education Association President Chrystie Crawford-Smick took issue with the governor’s jabs at teachers unions, saying he was making the situation political.
“Our Union was never keeping children and educators out of school; the pandemic is,” she wrote in a statement to The Aegis. “Threatening to suspend teaching certificates is a counter-productive and unnecessary bullying tactic. Blaming the teachers is not productive. It is not educators who will ultimately decide when to return.”
Hogan and Salmon have been the ones moving goal posts, she said, not local school boards. Harford County schools followed the guidance issued by the state in late August, just prior to schools starting after Labor Day, and when the metrics exceeded those in the guidance, the school system reverted to virtual learning, Crawford-Smick wrote.
“This demonstrated a great deal of respect for their employees and the overall health of the community,” she wrote.
As a mother of three HCPS students, a full-time working parent along with her husband, Crawford-Smick acknowledged the last few months have not been easy on students, families or educators.
“Most educators are eager to return to in-person learning,” she wrote. “Educators want to ensure a safe learning and working environment for everyone to continue to deliver effective instruction.”
Teachers are eligible to be vaccinated during Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan, which is now open. But that group also includes adults at least 75 years old, the homeless, people who live in group homes and child care workers.
Chan urged all school employees to get a vaccine when available, but said that shouldn’t be a factor in reopening decisions.
“I would emphasize, that school reopening decisions should not be based on the availability of vaccination or the level of vaccination among staff,” she said.
Hogan said he will announce further steps to accelerate vaccinations next week. Hogan said he spoke with Biden and the new head of the coronavirus task force, and expects more steps on vaccinations from them in the coming days.
Harford educators will start receiving the COVID-19 vaccine next week, Crawford-Smick said; first elementary school teachers then secondary school employees the week of Feb. 8. The virus metrics in the county remain concerning, though, she said.
The county surpassed 10,500 confirmed cases and reached 190 COVID-19 related deaths on Thursday, according to state data. The positivity rate remained above 8%, as it has since 2021 began, and the average new case rate was 34.39 per 100,000. Previous guidance from the state cautioned against in-person instruction when those metrics were above 5% and 15 cases per 100,000, indicating high transmission in the community.
Those metrics had been a key roadblock in a return to schools.
“Our greatest concern has been the community transmission of COVID-19,” Bulson said Thursday.
Griffith said that the possibility of more infections is always a concern but cited the experts who spoke at the governor’s press conference.
”Long way to go,” he said, “but pivotal day in this effort to get schools reopened.”
Schandelmeier, who has one child in the sixth grade at Southampton Middle School and another in the ninth grade at C. Milton Wright High School, said parents finally have a “ray of hope,” and hoped Harford schools would follow the governor’s initiative “and get our schools back open and get these kids back in the classroom.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Bryn Stole and Liz Bowie and Aegis reporter James Whitlow contributed to this article.