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Harford schools won’t move to two-day hybrid because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements

Genna Haines, a 1st Grade student at Churchville Elementary School, raises her hand to answer a question in the classroom, on Thursday, Oct. 22.
Genna Haines, a 1st Grade student at Churchville Elementary School, raises her hand to answer a question in the classroom, on Thursday, Oct. 22. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County Public Schools plans to continue bringing in more students at different grade levels for a once-a-week hybrid learning model, but physical distancing guidelines will prevent schools from welcoming back students two times a week.

“We had been looking to see how to transition from one to two days, and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do that,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said in an interview.

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Officials had been hopeful to have students at all grade levels in school two days a week by early December.

“As a result of the current attendance levels in our schools and the guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Maryland Department of Health requiring 6 feet of socially distancing, the timeline to begin two days a week of in-person learning must be re-evaluated,” stated a message sent to HCPS parents Tuesday afternoon.

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Harford school officials initially thought enough parents might opt for all-virtual learning that, in some cases, students could be brought back into the classroom in a twice-a-week hybrid. That hasn’t been the case.

Instead, some parents who initially indicated they might not send their child to school changed their minds after hearing positive feedback about the once-a-week hybrid.

“And that’s completely understandable,” Bulson said, “but when we look at how many students we have in buildings one day a week, we can’t double that and keep our class sizes where they need to be to support the 6-foot distancing. In almost all of our schools, we would have rooms that would go over capacity.”

Keeping space available in case more parents opt to send students currently learning online only is also a priority, he said.

Depending on the room size, about eight to 12 students can safely fit in a classroom with desks spaced 6 feet apart in all directions.

The rest of the Continuity of Learning Plan, which calls for elementary school students in third through fifth grades to return once a week starting next Wednesday, is still in place, so long as local health metrics do not change, Bulson said.

When those students return, HCPS expects a little more than 10,000 elementary school students attending in-person at least one day a week. That’s just over half of the school system’s elementary student body.

Kindergarten through second-grade students returned the week of Oct. 19 for one day of in-person instruction, learning from home the rest of the time, with a different group of students reporting to their buildings each day. Middle and high schoolers are still on track to return one day a week starting Nov. 16.

Some students —including those who began attending Learning Support Centers at the beginning of the year and others who returned more recently because their parents are HCPS employees — are attending full time.

Keeping students socially distanced by 6 feet, as outlined in state guidance, is hindering the school system’s ability to safely put more students in a classroom at any given time.

“Our plans are all designed around the 6 feet [requirement] and will remain that way until the guidance changes,” Bulson said.

The superintendent said he recognizes there are some in the community that would like HCPS to interpret the guidance differently and allow more students to return. Based on weekly conversations with the Harford County Health Department, however, “I think we’re following an appropriate interpretation of the guidance,” Bulson said.

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