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No change in plans regarding return to in-person learning in Harford County, schools spokesperson says

A Harford County Public Schools spokesperson says there has been no change in plans to bring local students learning virtually back for in-person instruction, even as a group of parents statewide called on kids to return to classrooms and one central Maryland school district voted to bring students back for hybrid learning this week.

Parents from six public school districts in central Maryland, including Harford, are calling on Gov. Larry Hogan and state education and health officials to give families the option of attending in-person classes.

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The organization, which claims to represent 10,000 parents from Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Charles, Frederick and Montgomery counties, wrote to state leaders Tuesday morning, saying that parents are concerned about the “detrimental impact of prolonged school closure on children.”

“School systems throughout the country, including our own local nonpublic schools in Maryland, continue to stay open and operate. We ask that public school children throughout the State of Maryland have the same opportunity,” the groups wrote.

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Suburban central Maryland school districts, including Harford County, are currently operating almost entirely online because of increased spread of COVID-19 in the state. On Monday night, the Carroll County Board of Education voted to begin in-person learning on a hybrid schedule again on Jan. 7, after parents offered testimony asking for schools to reopen. The Carroll school board did so against the advice of their county health officer.

Jillian Lader, the communications manager for HCPS, said Tuesday that nothing has changed regarding plans to return to in-person learning, but that school system staff continues to have regular conversations with the Harford County Health Department for guidance.

“Getting students and staff back to school remains our priority, and we will continue discussions with county health leaders in addition to following any guidance provided by the state,” Lader wrote in an email.

Harford schools opened in September with a limited number of students in Learning Support Centers at school buildings. It gradually began bringing back some elementary school students once a week over the next few months, but suspended all in-person learning in mid-November following a spike in state and local coronavirus cases and metrics.

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State officials have not said when schools should open or close, but have approved health metrics to guide school districts when combined with other safeguards such as masks, limited class sizes and social distancing. Those metrics, announced in August, say schools should consider limited in-person or no in-person classes when the test positivity rate is above 5% and daily new coronavirus cases within the community are greater than 15 cases per 100,000 people.

Maryland and Harford County are both above those levels currently.

“That is what we have been following because that is our guidance,” said Kelly Griffith, president of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland. “We are not health experts. We are not scientists. We will take the advice of our health officers.” If the state wants to change those metrics, she said, then it should do that.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has pushed public schools to reopen for at least some in-person classes, but has repeatedly said the final decision is up to local school districts.

The HCPS Continuity of Learning plan also relies on those two statistics to determine whether in-person learning or other activities can take place.

Superintendent Sean Bulson, when announcing the move to all-virtual instruction in November, said once those statistics fall below 15 per 100,000 news positive cases per day and below a 5% positivity rate, Harford would start discussions on returning the hybrid status.

Neither metric, however, has decreased below the established thresholds since Harford moved to an all-virtual format Nov. 13.

“As shared previously, the metrics are a guideline and ensuring the health of our students, as well as our staff, is essential through this global health crisis,” Lader wrote in an email. Bulson was not available for comment Tuesday.

The county’s metrics have stabilized since peaking in late November, but have yet to return to levels seen in the summer and early fall.

As of Tuesday, Harford’s positivity rate was 8.9% and the average new case rate is 35.46 per 100,000, indicating transmission remains high. On Monday, the positivity rate briefly ticked past 9% for the first time since mid-November.

The positivity rate has not been below 5% since Nov. 4, and the lowest it has been since surpassing the 5% threshold was 6.73% on Dec. 11, according to state data.

Likewise, the last time the seven-day moving average case rate was below the threshold is Nov. 5. Its low point since then was 25.73 cases per 100,000, recorded Dec. 29.

Multiple parents have expressed their frustration, both online and during public comment sessions of school board, about the toll virtual education has taken on their children’s mental health while learning at home. Several protests also have happened in front of the HCPS headquarters in Bel Air as parents demand schools reopen.

Parent groups from individual counties have been forming Facebook groups to organize school reopening efforts in recent months. Those groups have now joined together in an attempt to pressure school officials, school boards and elected officials to reopen some schools, or to make plans for the eventual reopening.

In the letter from reopening groups, including one from Harford County, parents expressed that they have grown increasingly angry at the lack of choice, saying that they believe schools should be reopened with safeguards in place.

They point to studies that say that the presence of the virus in the community is higher than in schools.

Some parents are particularly frustrated that school leaders do not have a detailed plan for reopening buildings for in-person classes.

“There is an alarming increase in social isolation, depression, academic failure, learning loss, rising obesity, and inadequate intervention services. Similar detrimental effects have been seen worldwide in the aftermath of prolonged school lockdowns,” the reopening groups wrote in the letter to Hogan and other state officials.

Last month, HCPS administration reported to the Board of Education significant challenges related to student attendance, as well as keeping students engaged in classwork, during the first quarter of the current school year.

The letter calls on the state to “immediately change its reopening guidelines to prioritize school reopening.” Health metrics should not be used “as on-off switches for closure and reopening,” they argue.

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