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With clock ticking on decision for kids to return to school, Harford parents still have plenty of questions

Parents of elementary school children in Harford County must make a decision by Friday whether to send their children back to school for one day a week — with virtual learning the rest of the time — or remain in the all-virtual setting which the majority of Harford County Public Schools students have been in since the academic year began Sept. 8, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

School system officials, who initially determined classes will happen online through the end of the first semester in January, have released an updated plan that calls for a hybrid of in-person and online classes, starting with children in kindergarten through second grade on Oct. 19.

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Limited activities, with small groups, for those in programs for students with special needs as well as some students who are English Language Learners and participate in hands-on career and technology programs, also will start in schools Oct. 19 — HCPS staff are scheduled to go back Oct. 12.

The current plan lays out a gradual return to in-person learning for HCPS' more than 38,000 students, with third through fifth-graders and pre-kindergartners going back for hybrid classes Nov. 4 and middle and high schoolers going back Nov. 16.

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Kindergarten through second grade is scheduled to advance to two days a week starting Nov. 16, and officials anticipate two days of in-person learning for all grades by Dec. 7, according to the HCPS website.

Parent Erin Colburn, of Baldwin, is concerned that a suitable framework might not be in place by the time students start going back to school later this month to ensure teachers and students have the technology they need for hybrid classes, and that everyone is protected from COVID-19 while in school.

“I don’t understand how this plan can be pushed through without the framework that it needs to actually support the people who are running it, and that’s the teachers,” she said Thursday.

Colburn’s two daughters, who are in the fifth grade at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston and the seventh grade at Fallston Middle School, respectively, are currently taking all-virtual classes at home. Colburn, who works as a substitute teacher with HCPS, and her husband are supporting their children’s schoolwork.

Families have had the option to send their children to Learning Support Centers set up in schools around the county, giving students a place where they can interact with their peers, have meals and reliable internet access.

Colburn has kept her children home, however, citing concerns about exposure to the novel coronavirus. Her daughters have connected to their classes via personal laptops they received as Christmas gifts — the school system ordered enough Chromebook computers for every student, but not all have arrived in time for the start of classes because of pandemic-related issues with global manufacturing and supply chains, so a number of Harford families are using personal devices until all Chromebooks are in place.

She said there have been some technology-related challenges with virtual learning, but the experience has gone well overall.

“I’ve been very impressed — the teachers have put their everything into it,” said Colburn, noting how teachers have revamped parts of their homes to serve as classrooms.

She expressed concern about how teachers will, once they get back in the classroom, be able to balance their attention between students who are with them in person and those who are learning virtually.

“I haven’t talked to a single teacher who has said, ‘Yes, this is a great idea,’” Colburn said, stressing that teachers do want to go back to the classroom.

“Every teacher is in this because of the relationships they create with students,” she said.

School system officials, both at the HCPS central office and individual schools, have been fielding a number of questions and concerns from parents and teachers.

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A general communication, covering frequently asked questions, was scheduled to go out to elementary school parents Thursday night so they have more information as they make their decision Friday about whether to send their children back for hybrid classes, according to Jillian Lader, manager of communications for HCPS.

The FAQ was developed by elementary school principals and school system staff, and a similar FAQ is being developed for secondary school parents, according to Lader.

Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson said he believes that having even a small number of students in school can be beneficial to teachers as well as their students, noting how teachers often rely on non-verbal cues from students to gauge how they are doing.

“We’d all rather have 100% in-person instruction, but I still think it’s the type of thing that teachers are going to improve with as they get more practice with it,” Bulson said of the hybrid system.

State officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan, have encouraged local school systems in Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions to reopen for in-person classes.

“They really is no excuse for not trying to bring kids back,” Hogan said during a press conference Thursday, although he stressed that the state “can’t and won’t usurp" local school systems' authority to implement their reopening plans.

Bulson said HCPS' gradual reopening plan will help the schools bring back more students over time, noting officials must follow state guidance on social distancing.

“There’s a lot of learning that will go on, in terms of how we make the instruction more effective and more engaging, and we start with a small group,” he said.

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