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Harford schools proceed with plan for all-virtual classes, plus learning centers, next year following board approval

The seal of approval has been granted by the Board of Education for Harford County Public Schools’ plans to hold all virtual classes for the system’s more than 38,000 students next year, but many details still need to be worked out about how to best serve the many different student groups within HCPS before classes begin Sept. 8.

“Our plan is not perfect,” Superintendent Sean Bulson acknowledged as he began his presentation of his administration’s Continuity of Learning Plan to the school board Monday night.

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“We still have many questions to answer and, I do apologize there aren’t more concrete answers in some of the places [in the plan],” said Bulson, who noted his hoped that his presentation would assuage community concerns.

Harford students will have all-virtual classes for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, with the option of learning from home or at a Learning Support Center set up in various school buildings, following the Board of Education’s near-unanimous approval of HCPS’ Continuity of Learning Plan on Monday.

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School board members voted 8-1 in favor of the plan late Monday night following several hours of discussion, including spending about 90 minutes hearing comments from the public — board member Tamera Rush cast the lone dissenting vote.

Rush reminded those listening to the meeting online that she and several of her colleagues on the board have children in HCPS and are dealing with the same concerns as other parents — Rush has a son going into his senior year of high school.

“I can tell you, this is heartbreaking for my family as well as it is for yours,” she told listeners.

Officials plan to begin online classes when the next school year starts in September and keep that system in place through the end of the first semester in late January. Officials “have many, many details to still get the planning right” for all members of the HCPS community before the school year starts, but they expect to provide a safe learning environment for all involved, Bulson said.

“As an organization, we do have to be thoughtful about what we are doing and whether we may or not be contributing to the community spread of [COVID-19],” Bulson noted.

He stressed that, “if what we’re doing creates an uptick in community spread, that’s an impact on the entire community.”

One issue affecting the school system’s planning process is working in the midst of a pandemic that has affected global supply and distribution networks, and the information known about the disease changes on a seemingly daily basis.

Officials learned Monday afternoon that nearly 15,000 of the 27,000 Chromebook computers they had ordered for elementary school students will not be delivered until after school starts, Bulson announced.

School system leaders are putting contingency plans into action to get the 13,000 computers that will be available before Sept. 8 into the hands of students who need them the most, based in information gathered during the spring about families that need computers or could not get access to the HCPS online learning program.

“We know where to prioritize those that we do have to distribute,” Bulson said. “But, like so many things that occurred through this pandemic, one challenge after another keeps confronting [us] and requiring us to switch and build a new plan.”

Public concerns on virtual learning

The board fielded close to 60 public comments for Monday’s meeting; the majority of commenters were against virtual classes, citing the many problems families had when HCPS switched to online distance learning in the spring as schools throughout Maryland closed to protect students and staff from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many parents and students who submitted comments Monday shared stories of youths experiencing depression and anxiety while isolated from their peers and teachers, or they cited concerns about children, especially those in early elementary school grades and those with special needs, missing crucial portions of their education and development while out of the classroom.

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Other commenters focused on how high school seniors missed the traditional spring milestones last year and how high-schoolers this year could be affected by losing the ability to play fall and winter sports or participate in extracurricular activities.

Those comments come on the heels of a protest last Thursday in which 50 to 60 people picketed in front of the HCPS headquarters and in downtown Bel Air, urging school system leaders to open schools for in-person classes, at least through a hybrid model in which students are in school part of the week and learn remotely the rest of the week.

“We absolutely understand the impact that not being in person has on our students,” Bulson said Monday.

He, as well as several board members, rejected the idea put forth by protest organizers and some commenters that HCPS officials changed from the hybrid to virtual model because of pressure from the state teachers’ union.

“This was not about politics,” Bulson said. “This has not been a political decision.”

He said HCPS’ initial plan for a hybrid model — based on how the state is in Stage 2 of its reopening and recovery plan for businesses — “still had many holes, and it had many logistical issues we could not deliver on” in terms of providing instruction and a safe environment. School system officials pivoted in July after hearing multiple concerns about the hybrid plan from school board members, HCPS staffers and members of the public during an electronic town hall.

“Do we want to see our children back in school, of course we do,” said board member Dr. Roy Phillips, who has been a practicing physician in Harford County for 38 years.

“There’s no question that each of us want to see our students receive the academic and social education which comes from being in the classroom and being delivered by the high quality teachers employed by Harford County Public Schools,” said Phillips, who stressed that “there are risks involved” regarding the novel coronavirus.

Bulson said he relies on guidance from the Harford County Health Department, as well as bi-weekly calls on the pandemic hosted by the county government when making decisions about the status of schools — four major metrics related to the disease include the rate of people testing positive for COVID-19, the number of new infections, number of hospitalizations and the death rate.

The positivity rate in Harford County had been going down for eight consecutive days as of Monday, according to Bulson.

“If we’re able to stay in particularly low numbers in the county for a significant period of time, we can consider adjusting our plans, but please know that moving from stage to stage is not a simple process and it will take time,” he said.

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There are more than 38,000 HCPS students and about 5,000 employees. More than 2,500 students are expected to attend a learning center, where they will be supervised by adult staff while still receiving virtual lessons, and they will have bus transportation to and from the centers, plus meals will be served during the school day.

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“I have absolute confidence that we can create these in-person experiences in our schools, and we can do that safely,” the superintendent said.

Once the learning centers are “settled and working,” then officials will look at bringing more students back to a classroom setting, primarily those in the greatest need of in-person services, Bulson said.

Bringing more students back depends on multiple factors, such as what is happening with COVID-19 at the time, the directives local school systems receive from the state, as well as the school system’s ability to provide adequate staffing, ensure enough personal protective equipment is available, and that staff and students follow safety protocols, according to Bulson.

“We need to ensure that we can deliver this plan that we have as safely as possible,” he said.

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