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Harford students can participate in virtual learning programs this summer; Stars of Summer virtual camp begins July 20

There will be multiple opportunities this summer for Harford County Public Schools students to enrich themselves by either learning new skills or sharpening existing ones, although most of the activities will take place in a virtual environment.

Local school system officials must follow state-issued guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while putting on programs for students and their families, and any activities that can be done through online programs such as Microsoft Teams will happen virtually, according to Susan Brown, executive director for curriculum, instruction and assessment.

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“We really are trying to follow guidelines about keeping people safe and healthy,” Brown said Wednesday.

Officials are determining how some programs, such as summer conditioning for athletics, can be done in person — the annual Summer Swim Program, held at middle schools around the county with swimming pools, has been canceled, however.

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“If we can make it work, we’re certainly going to try,” Brown said of in-person programming. “It seems like most of the learning will lend itself to being in a virtual environment.”

She noted that HCPS officials “are looking at every single possibility to make sure that we provide some great opportunities for our families, for our students this summer.”

One such program is the Stars of Summer Virtual Learning Camp, which begins in late July for kindergartners through ninth graders.

“It’s intended to be a very vibrant, out-of-the box, creative way to approach academic learning throughout the summer,” Andrew Renzulli, supervisor of science for HCPS, said Wednesday.

Classes were held online during the spring, with teachers posting assignments for students to complete on electronic platforms, after schools around Maryland closed for in-person instruction in March. The last day of school for HCPS students was June 16, and officials are taking the many lessons learned from the sudden switch to distance learning into consideration as they prepare for the next school year — the first day of school will be Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Dr. Roy Phillips, a member of the Harford County Board of Education, stressed that state education officials will decide whether schools will be open in the fall, and then local school officials must act based on state regulations and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, working in concert with local health officials.

“Whatever happens in the fall, I can at least give my promise to the community that it will be as well thought-out a plan as possibly can be provided to our parents and our students out there,” Phillips said during a board meeting Monday.

Stars of Summer

In the meantime, HCPS is offering a number of ways for youths to keep their brains engaged this summer. One new program this year is the Stars of Summer Virtual Learning Camp, a four-week program available to kindergartners through ninth graders starting July 20 — registration begins July 1.

“[It’s] something new we’re doing this year, to address some of the gaps that may have emerged in students this spring because of the shutdown we had,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said during the school board meeting.

The first segment of Stars of Summer has been designed for kindergartners and first graders to recoup any math and reading skills they might have struggled to learn during the school year. Children will be able to play games and interact with teachers and classmates, according to Renzulli.

Children can, in the math section, “build the sense of numeracy, which is really a pivotal skill that kindergartners and first graders need to have to be successful in further grades,” Renzulli said.

Students going into second through ninth grade can participate in about 75 “unique academic experiences,” based on proposals submitted by HCPS teachers, according to Renzulli, who said teachers were encouraged to “really tap into their own personal passions and creative interests and bring that to bear for their students.”

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Youths can participate at their own pace and come in and out of the programs, which they can choose “based on their own personal interests and their academic interests,” Renzulli said.

More information about Stars of Summer will be available July 1 on the HCPS website, its social media channels, as well as through text, email and phone notifications, according to Renzulli.

Brown said it will be “really interesting” to see how the new program goes this summer, as it could provide lessons on how to operate digital learning programs for future school years and summer breaks.

Students will interact with teachers on a virtual basis, although it will be through a live format, rather than during the school year when teachers posted videos of themselves giving lessons that the students watched later.

“The predominant feature will be that synchronous, in-the-moment, live teaching and learning,” Renzulli said.

School officials plan to conduct professional development with teachers over the summer on digital learning formats. The Stars of Summer program will be an opportunity for teachers “to gear up for whatever the fall may look like for the school system,” Renzulli said.

The school system also will conduct its traditional high school summer learning program for students to make up courses they did not pass during the school year, plus they can take new courses to get ahead on their high school credits. Extended School Year services also will be available for students with special needs — both programs will happen in a virtual environment, according to Brown.

“We have reflected a lot of the feedback that we have received and how we can make sure that we’re addressing any concerns that a family might have,” she said regarding digital learning.

Many parents have expressed concerns to the school board about how their children have struggled with learning at home, away from their teachers and peers; HCPS sent a survey to parents during the spring to get their feedback on how digital distance learning can be improved.

Conducting high school summer learning and ESY programs online “does give us an opportunity to put in place some learning that we have based on the initial closure” of schools, Brown noted.

The school system also is, for the first summer, connecting parents and students to tutors on a formal basis — schools have, in the past, provided contact information for tutors if individual parents ask, but this is the first year HCPS has “endorsed people and been the conduit between families and teachers for that service,” Brown said.

Preparing for fall opening

Teachers, school administrators, HCPS central office staff, as well as parents are working together this summer to ensure teachers are fully trained on the technology and their curriculum before school begins in the fall.

“We want to support them as much as we possibly can, so they can have the tools that they need to provide effective, coherent instruction to our students in the fall,” Brown said.

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Bulson said the school system is working with focus groups, which include members of the community who have raised concerns about digital learning and offered their support, to prepare for the fall opening.

The groups will provide feedback as HCPS introduces “challenging, never-done-before plans for how we might reopen in the fall, taking just 1,000 data points into consideration,” Bulson said.

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