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Harford County again welcomes elementary students back for in-person learning

Elementary school students were welcomed back to Harford County Public Schools for the second time this year, and the first time since mid-November, as kindergarten through fifth-grade students began a twice-a-week hybrid Monday.

About 65% of the school system’s more than 16,800 elementary students were returning for in-person learning, according to HCPS officials. The rest were going to continue fully virtual learning from home.

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Harford had gradually brought back its youngest students during the month of October, but reverted to fully virtually learning after just a few weeks, as COVID-19 cases began to spike statewide and in the county.

Kristin Vencill’s son, a kindergartener at Church Creek Elementary in Belcamp, was among the 11,000 or so students returning this week.

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Vencill said it was a “no brainer” for her son to go back. He did well when students briefly came back to the classroom in the fall.

Her son struggled with virtual learning and even though he will still be in front of his computer in the classroom, Vencill said she thinks attending in person will help build his self-confidence and independence.

“My son thinks that this is what school is — he has no idea that it’s actually in a classroom, he actually thinks it is in front of a computer, not being able to see his friends,” she said, calling the experience “depressing” and saying most of her day is “spent in a power struggle to get him to complete the assignments.”

Caylyn Ryden, who was dropping off her daughters Harper and Tenley Blakenship at Red Pump Elementary School Monday, said while they had stayed focused and on-task during virtual learning, they were “just dying to get back in school,” missing their teachers and friends.

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“The first two weeks, it was a fun break, but now they want to be in the classroom,” Ryden said. “We’re crossing our fingers for four days a week soon and getting back to as much normal as possible.”

Others, like Gracemarie Garlen, have opted to keep their children at home learning virtually for the remainder of the school year. She was skeptical about student safety, especially if the school system moves to having elementary school kids in person four days a week in April.

“This many students together at once will not be able to maintain six feet of distance [and] is not prudent,” she said.

Her children have done well with the online format, something she credits to the teachers, staff and administration at Bel Air Elementary “who have gone above and beyond to provide them with enriching lessons and the emotional support that they need every single day.”

Garlen said her family is fortunate enough to be in a position to stay at home with their children, and feels for students whose families have struggled this year.

Both Vencill and Garlen said they have been happy with their children’s teachers, but less so with the school system.

“I feel like they drug their feet to have a proper plan in action just in case we made it to the point of face-to-face learning,” Vencill said.

HCPS, Garlen said, was trying too hard to come up with a plan to please everyone “and in turn has not fully pleased anyone.”

She liked the idea of the Learning Support Centers for families who needed it most when the school year began in September. HCPS made space available in its buildings for students who had limited internet access or needed adult supervision during the day. About 2,500 students attended the learning centers.

Schools should’ve waited until more adults in the community, particularly secondary school teachers, have been vaccinated before bringing students back, Garlen said.

“Their decision to reopen middle and high schools without waiting for those staff members to be offered the vaccine is disgraceful,” she said. “I find it very concerning how vocal some people are about getting their kids back in school, yet those same people will not fight for the health and safety of the teachers who are working triple time to educate their children.”

County Health Officer Dr. David Bishai sent an email to all unvaccinated educators recently, scheduling clinics for four straight Fridays, which began last week and will continue through March 19. The Harford County Health Department should be able to vaccinate 1,600 educators in that span, he said.

Middle and high school students are slated to return once a week beginning the week of March 15, although the frequency older students are attending could increase if COVID-19 metrics in the community continue to decline.

Shawn Darby won’t be sending his son, a junior at Havre de Grace High School, back this year, because of the lack of vaccines.

“There aren’t enough vaccines in place yet and things have been rushed to get them back to school,” Darby said. “My son has actually been doing better and been more focused on his schoolwork doing it virtually.”

This story may be updated.

Aegis photojournalist Matt Button contributed to this article.

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