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Harford’s parents, legislators voice concerns and opposition to virtual learning plan

A collection of legislators and parents voiced their opposition Thursday to Harford County Public Schools’ plan to begin classes virtually in the 2020-2021 school year.

Outside of Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air, Del. Mike Griffith said the plan for most students to return to school virtually on Sept. 8 would have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged families, students with special needs and those in rural areas — along with parents who struggle to balance their work and their child’s education. He called for the board to consider other plans and work with stakeholders.

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Griffith said he hopes to work with the Harford County Board of Education to find a way to give students and teachers the choice to attend school in-person.

“I call on the superintendent and the board of education to put our children over politics and make the right choice,” Griffith, a Republican, said. “Please stop telling us what can’t be done and please work with us to find out what we can do.”

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Under the school system’s current plan, classes will be taught virtually until January of next year, with a select number of students attending Learning Support Centers, where they will participate in virtual classes under adult supervision. Starting on the first day of school, 5% of Harford County’s approximately 38,000 students will return to school buildings through the learning centers, although they will welcome students back in stages through October.

Griffith called for more flexibility for teachers and parents to make that choice. As the parent of an autistic son, he said that the transition to virtual learning will be burdensome, and it could be dangerous for some children in difficult situations, citing a Washington Post report on the increasing severity of child abuse cases but fewer reported cases across the country during the pandemic. A teacher, he reasoned, would see the signs of abuse.

Superintendent Sean Bulson said the school system is collaborating with the Harford County Health Department to monitor relevant health metrics and determine when schools can open. Bulson said the county’s numbers are encouraging — HCPS could open schools as they stand — but the county health department recommended monitoring the numbers in learning centers for four weeks to see if they hold steady, fall or rise.

If those learning centers do not contribute to the virus’ spread, more in-person instruction will follow.

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“We are currently in a place where we could be doing more in-person [instruction] based on the current metrics, so we expect, if all things stay the same with regard to those metrics, you will be hearing from us soon about some of the deliberate moves we will be making to bring more of our students in,” Bulson said.

There has been no movement on the laptops the school system ordered to provide students. Many of them are still scheduled to arrive after school begins, Bulson said. Because of the shortage, kindergarten through third-grade students will not receive laptops for virtual instruction. The school system is urging those who do not need the devices to defer picking them up or return them for another student’s use.

“We have gotten a few back, but not enough,” Bulson said.

The prospect of virtual learning has many parents worried, and two at Thursday’s news conference voiced their concerns and criticisms in no uncertain terms. Susanne Reiter, a parent of two sons in Harford schools, said the failure to deliver an adequate number of laptops represents a broken promise from the school board.

Beyond their availability, the request to return laptops for other students’ use did not sit well with Reiter.

“Is the fact that my two children do not have a means to learn virtually more or less important than my neighbor,” she said. “This was a promise made to every family with a student K through 5. Now the people who made that promise are asking me and my husband to sacrifice our children on the altar of their failures.”

Amanda Bosley-Smith said her 7-year-old has severe, non-verbal autism and anxiety issues. He was assigned to a non-public school after Bosley-Smith hired an advocate to represent her case to the public school system. Her son never got to start at that new school, exacerbating his stress and behavior from the lack of routine.

“He requires a one-on-one, in-person program instructor, which is clearly outlined in his extensive [individualized education program] — his IEP which is now completely out of compliance,” she said. “He has regressed significantly; his self-injurious behaviors have increased to the point where he will now hit himself so hard that he bleeds, something that has not happened while receiving instruction.”

Bosley-Smith has another child to take care of, and she works. She said her son only receives two days of virtual instruction a week, equating to 3 hours per week. His IEP says he requires 30.75 hours of instruction weekly. The loss of hundreds of hours of instruction, she said, will affect her son for the rest of his life.

Along with Griffith and the two parents, County Councilman Chad Shrodes, and Dels. Susan McComas and Kathy Szeliga, plus state Sen. Jason Gallion, all Republicans, spoke out against the school board’s course of action.

Shrodes urged civility on both sides of the debate and echoed parents’ and elected officials’ point: the board of education’s plan should be revised. Shrodes’ council district is in the northern reaches of Harford County where access to internet has been a perennial problem.

“For the sake and well-being of our children and families, we need a new plan that offers more diverse and inclusive options,” he said.

In a July commentary published by the Aegis, Griffith proposed hosting virtual seventh through 12th grade in the county, excepting those with special needs, certain IEPs and those taking hands-on technical classes. That, he maintained, would free up space for students in grades K-6 to relocate to high, middle and elementary schools, reducing the density of each building to encourage social distancing. Under that plan, children could stay home if they or their parents want to, as could teachers.

It would take serious organization, Griffith said, but teachers who would wish to teach in-person could. School buses would run their normal routes but take different grade levels to different buildings; fifth- and sixth-grades would go to high schools, grades three and four to middle schools, and kindergarten through second to elementary schools.

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Thursday, prior to the press conference, Bulson sent a response to legislators, agreeing that in-person learning is the most effective approach and reiterating a commitment “to returning students to in-person learning when health and safety conditions allow.”

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The school system’s current plan, he wrote, is a starting point in that process, and he emphasized that Gov. Larry Hogan stated at least week’s press conference, “a return to in-person learning should occur safely and gradually,” while also noting the state has yet to provide guidance on how the recent move to Stage Three in the coronavirus recovery plan will affect schools.

“Given the improved health metrics throughout the state of Maryland, and specifically Harford County, we are considering additional steps to return students for some in-person learning,” Bulson wrote, noting that any decisions would be grounded in those health metrics, as well as recommendations from the state, and would be made in collaboration with the Harford County Health Department, the school board and HCPS staff.

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