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Ring Factory Elementary students, teachers excited to be back in person after months of virtual learning

With the exception of about a week and a half in the fall, Ring Factory Elementary School fifth-graders Mya Lowery and Belle Merlette have spent the majority of the current school year learning virtually as Harford County Public Schools official work to keep students and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belle and Mya were back in school Monday, however, and able to see their friends and teachers in person. They were among about 65% of more than 16,800 HCPS elementary students who returned to school this week on a hybrid schedule. Elementary students will learn in person two days a week and virtually the rest of the week.

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“I’m really happy to be back,” said Belle, 11, as she and Mya took a brief break from a physical education class in the school gymnasium.

“The school gym is way more fun than virtual [learning], because you can actually play with your friends,” Mya, 10, said.

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“We feel confident we can meet these target dates if we don’t experience high rates of quarantines, isolations, or outbreaks in our schools,” according to an announcement posted on the HCPS website Monday evening.

The majority of HCPS’ nearly 38,000 students started the 2020-21 school year virtually, although officials worked to return elementary students to the classroom in the fall, with kindergarten through second grade going back in late October and third through fifth grade back in early November, all on a hybrid basis. The school system went back to all-virtual learning Nov. 13 as the rate of COVID-19 spread in the community went up.

The metrics have come down in recent weeks after a significant spike in December and January. Harford County had 12,515 total cases and 233 deaths from COVID-19, as of Monday. The county’s positivity rate stood at 4.44% and the weekly average case rate was 11.52 per 100,000, both as of Sunday, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

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“It’s great to have [students] back in the building, and the schools are doing a good job managing all the different considerations for teaching during COVID, so it’s good to see that in action,” HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson said.

Bulson took a tour of Ring Factory Elementary on Monday, in addition to Bel Air and Homestead-Wakefield, and he plans to visit additional elementary schools this week. The superintendent, joined by Ring Factory principal Meridith Dunlap, visited classrooms where students wearing masks worked on laptop computers as their teachers guided them through their lessons. Many students were behind plexiglass shields placed on top of their desks.

Ring Factory has about 500 students enrolled this year, and half of the student body that is returning is scheduled to be in the building Monday and Tuesday. The second half will be in Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday will be an asynchronous day, according to Dunlap.

Asynchronous days are when students learn online, but they are not taught live by a staff member, according to the school system’s Continuity of Learning Plan.

Belle and Mya, who both have parents who teach at Ring Factory, expressed excitement about being back in school. Belle noted it is much easier to ask for help when learning in person.

“My teacher can help me when I need help, and it’s easier to learn,” Belle said. “It’s easier to be in person.”

“I’m really excited to hang out with my friends again and see my teachers,” Mya added.

Belle noted that “it’s a lot more fun” to see her friends in person, rather than on a computer screen.

A large Plexi-Glass barrier sits on top of Ring Factory Elementary School student Cora Gessleman's desk as teacher Ashley Wells, right, works through a problem with her as she and many students returned to the classroom Monday, March 1, 2021.
A large Plexi-Glass barrier sits on top of Ring Factory Elementary School student Cora Gessleman's desk as teacher Ashley Wells, right, works through a problem with her as she and many students returned to the classroom Monday, March 1, 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

The students in Ashley Wells’ second-grade classroom chatted with each other while playing games on their laptops during a free-play period Monday — one student even gave tech support tips to a peer who was having trouble with his computer.

“I am very excited to have them back in class,” Wells said of her students. “They have been doing such a good job adjusting to the new protocols.”

There are a number of health and safety protocols in place at Ring Factory, as well as other Harford County schools. Students and staff wear masks, maintain social distance from each other whenever possible and wash hands, plus the plexiglass shields are available.

Hand sanitizer stations are in the building, and each cohort of students remains together throughout the school day. Students also are assigned seats in class, to assist with contact tracing, according to the principal.

School custodians work on a rotating basis to sanitize bathrooms and other “high-touch areas” of the building, Dunlap said. Staff members also could be seen wiping down desks after students had used them.

The school system and county health department are working to get teachers and other staff members vaccinated against COVID-19. Wells, the second-grade teacher, said she has received her first of two shots, which gives her another boost of confidence while working in school.

The majority of elementary school staffers have received both of their vaccine shots, and health officials are working through scheduled clinics with secondary educators, according to Bulson.

The superintendent urged families to keep taking precautions against COVID-19 outside of school, “because we still have to be really cautious of any transmission.”

“If children are sick, please keep them home, because we still have to quarantine and isolate, and that could affect other students,” he said.

Bulson thanked HCPS staffers for their efforts, noting that “regardless of the position, everyone’s been contributing so much to this work.”

“We’re glad that we’re able to get more students in, and we hope to be doing even more before the year is out,” Bulson said.

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