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Hundreds of Harford families express interest in virtual school next year, as deadline to apply approaches

The families of hundreds of Harford County Public Schools students have applied to have their children take part in the school system’s virtual learning program, slated to be available for kindergarten through 12th grade in the next school year.

Over 250 middle school students and 289 high school students had applied for next year’s virtual program, along with 333 elementary schoolers, as of Monday, HCPS officials Michael O’Brien and Renee Villareal told the school board.

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Many families are still concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic lingering into the fall. But Villareal, executive director of elementary school instruction and performance, noted that “we have heard from families that have said, ‘Our children are thriving — they like this environment’” of virtual schooling.

Families have until Wednesday, May 5, to submit their applications, as HCPS officials are already in the process of hiring staff for the Virtual Program from Home eLearning option.

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“It is a lot for us to plan, and make sure we have the best possible program in place for everybody,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said during a Board of Education meeting Monday.

School system officials plan the have the majority of its more than 37,000 students learning in person five days a week next year. HCPS is also offering options for a blended virtual program for sixth through 12th grade, as well as the fully virtual eLearning program in which students learn from home while HCPS teachers instruct them.

Blended virtual learning — a mix of in-person and asynchronous online school — would be headquartered in the Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen.

More information about the virtual programs, as well as applications for elementary, middle and high school students, is available on the school system website.

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Harford County students have been learning virtually for most of the 2020-21 school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials began reopening schools on a hybrid basis last month. They started with elementary schools two days a week at the beginning of March, then expanded to middle and high schools, and now schools at all levels are open for in-person learning four days a week.

Students also have the option of remaining virtual, and teachers have been working simultaneously with pupils in their classrooms and appearing from home on a screen.

The virtual option, which HCPS officials began researching prior to the pandemic, is for families who might have lingering concerns about COVID-19 next year, as well as students who must remain at home because of medical issues or those who have succeeded in the virtual environment this year.

Multiple families have expressed interest in remaining virtual, according to Bulson, who said he might start a wait list depending on the number of students who want to stay in that format.

Some students thrived in virtual learning, Bulson told members of the Harford County Council during a fiscal 2022 budget work session Thursday. He hopes the school system will be able to offer virtual learning permanently for those who want it.

The program needs to have the flexibility to expand in case circumstances change or a new variant of the virus appears in Maryland and disrupts in-person schooling.

“We just don’t know how this is going to turn,” Bulson said.

The costs of offering the virtual program are not yet known, but Bulson said that should become clearer after May 5 when schools know how many students wish to continue with it. The Maryland State Department of Education has mandated that schools offer some form of in-person instruction.

School board member Dr. Roy Phillips expressed surprise and curiosity Monday about why so many students are interested in virtual learning, “especially that amount of elementary school kids.”

“I wouldn’t have thought that the interest would be that high,” he said. “The only reason I can think, personally, is because of COVID concerns, still.”

The reasons for choosing virtual learning are “very individualized,” based on conversations with parents, according to O’Brien, executive director of secondary school instruction and performance.

Many have concerns related to COVID-19, but other parents report that “their kid has really thrived” in a virtual setting, O’Brien said.

“We do have a smattering of families that are very interested in the virtual learning, because it’s really worked well for their children,” he added.

Phillips also asked if HCPS officials are considering offering virtual programs long term, or whether they are to be “a short-term fix” until all families are comfortable with sending their children back to school.

Officials contacted Baltimore County Public Schools about their eLearning programs, as HCPS officials were interested in developing a virtual option for the alternative education program before the pandemic.

They also visited BCPS, which had about 600 students in its virtual school at the time, including those in “home and hospital” status, and those who found success in a virtual environment, according to O’Brien.

Harford officials want to maintain a local virtual program after the pandemic, perhaps not as large as the program planned for next year, but to keep it in place for students with medical issues or who prefer learning virtually.

“We hope to keep it, the best that we can,” O’Brien said.

Aegis reporter James Whitlow contributed to this article.

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