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Parents, students weigh in on Harford’s virtual schooling plans for the fall

The Barwick family, of Bel Air, had such a difficult experience with Harford County Public Schools online classes during the spring that parents April and Kenneth are looking into private schools for their 11-year-old daughter, Amber, for when she starts the sixth grade in the fall.

“I need her to get more personal attention, which they really can’t provide,” April Barwick said of her daughter’s public school, noting it was even more difficult for teachers to provide individual attention for Amber in an online setting.

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“Anybody who has a problem subject, they need extra help,” she said of students who experience academic challenges.

As Harford County schools prepare for virtual instruction this fall, students and parents are weighing in about the concerns, and benefits, of online learning.

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The system switched from in-person to virtual instruction in the spring after schools in the county, and across Maryland, closed in mid-March to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials are planning to hold classes online in the fall through next January.

An HCPS draft plan for the next school year, which has undergone several revisions, has been released to the public, with a final version scheduled to be presented to the Board of Education on Aug. 10.

Grace Callwood, who is going into her sophomore year at Edgewood High School, found that there were “good and bad parts” to taking all of her classes online during the spring.

“It was a big adjustment, very different,” said the 15-year-old Abingdon resident.

Callwood, who is in the International Baccalaureate magnet program at Edgewood, listed a number of positive aspects of online classes, such as opportunities to complete extra credit projects to help bring her grades up, having greater flexibility in the time allotted to complete her schoolwork, and being able to receive a pass/fail mark instead of letter grades for the final quarter.

Callwood, who is also the founder of The We Cancerve Movement Inc. nonprofit organization, did not have to take final exams last year, which gave her more time to prepare for her AP government exam. She also was able to keep in touch with her classmates by phone and reach her teachers via email if she had any questions.

Caroline Ryan, who graduated from Fallston High School in the spring, lamented the quick shift to online classes. The 18-year-old said it was “just me at home” during the school day and that it was “disappointing my senior year got cut short.”

Harford’s high school seniors could not participate in many traditional end-of-the-year activities, such as prom and their final season of spring sports, because of the pandemic. They were able to have in-person graduation ceremonies with their families at their schools, albeit with many safety measures in place.

In the fall, Ryan plans to attend Stevenson University, where she will study early childhood education. Her sister, 20-year-old Kylie, is going into her junior year at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. She is studying exercise science and psychology and had to come home in the spring to continue classes online.

Kylie said remote learning “wasn’t bad,” but she has two exercise science classes in the fall with lab components, “so that could be challenging.”

Hybrid vs. all virtual

Harford school leaders initially put forth a plan for next year with three options, depending on what is happening with the pandemic when classes begin Sept. 8. The options included having students and teachers back in their classrooms, continuing with all-virtual classes or a hybrid of the two with students in class some days and learning virtually on others.

Officials had been considering the hybrid option, but decided to go with virtual learning after getting feedback from school board members and the public, with many people expressing concerns about the hybrid model. One key concern was securing child care on days when students would be learning virtually, and whether children could become infected with COVID-19 while in a day care setting, then bring the illness with them when returning to their schools.

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The current plan calls for online classes, although students have the option of going to a learning support center set up in various HCPS schools. Students who go to those learning centers — where meals will be provided — will still have online instruction, but they will be under the supervision of a school staff member.

Parents have until Aug. 4 to complete an online survey, letting HCPS officials know if they want their children to go to a learning center in the fall.

School system leaders have taken into account the extensive feedback they received from families about virtual instruction during the spring — much of it negative — and they are working to implement a number of improvements for the fall, such as numerous training sessions with teachers and staff so they can improve how they deliver instruction online.

Callwood said she appreciates the “schools’ decision to be safe rather than sorry” by choosing virtual instruction.

“I do understand that for some students learning online could be challenging — for some students more than others,” she noted.

“I’m looking forward to how the school system and the individual schools will approach teaching us and addressing the issues, making the learning environment as welcoming as possible,” said Callwood, who expressed some concern about getting to know her instructors and their teaching style online rather than in person.

She is looking forward to the next year, overall, as she plans to take more AP and college-level courses. She praised her teachers in the International Baccalaureate program for maintaining challenging coursework for her and her classmates in the spring while also taking the changes to the learning environment into consideration.

“We were still being challenged academically, and I enjoyed and appreciated it,” Callwood said.

Advantages and disadvantages

Ryan Trout, of Pylesville, who is going into the eighth grade at North Harford Middle School, said he would prefer to be in school a couple of days a week.

“I like not being with a lot of people, but I really do not like technology,” he said of virtual instruction.

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Trout, who on Wednesday was showing cattle at the Harford County Youth Livestock Show and Sale, noted one advantage to online schooling in the spring was that he did not have to get up around 6 a.m. to do his farm chores and get ready for school. He was able to get up at 7:30 or 8 a.m., focus on his farm work, and then start his classes.

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His cousin, 10-year-old Isabelle Smithson, who also showed cattle Wednesday, spoke of the advantages of online school.

“I got to work with my sheep more and with my cousins and my heifer,” said Isabelle, who is going into the fifth grade at Norrisville Elementary School.

Her mother, Jackie Smithson, said she thinks virtual instruction is safer, but she prefers a hybrid option in which students can “go back, a couple days at least, to get the interaction with each other.”

She said it was “really nice” when teachers could connect with students via Microsoft Teams video chat, because “to be able to see everybody’s faces and interact about what they were reading really made a difference.”

“Norrisville has great teachers,” Smithson said. “They all reach out [to] parents and students and kept up with us, so we’re really thankful for that.”

Regular communication is key

Havre de Grace resident Renee Stratton, who is a member of the school system’s North Star parent advisory committee, emphasized the need for regular communication between schools and students and their families.

Stratton’s younger daughter is going into the fifth grade at Havre de Grace Elementary School, where Stratton is president of the PTA, and her older daughter its going into seventh grade at Havre de Grace Middle School, where she is the membership chair for that school’s PTA.

“Our daughters did very well this spring,” Stratton said Friday. “They felt very connected, still, to their teachers.”

She said the elementary school principal and vice principal provided daily updates on the school’s Facebook page, and her daughter’s teacher was “available any time for questions.” The school even hosted a virtual assembly for students with a virtual magic show.

“Little things like that kind of draw the students together — it’s important,” she said.

Stratton recalled when her daughter struggled with missing school and her friends, and her daughter’s former third-grade teacher called to talk with her.

“He called her, just to say hello and check in on her,” Stratton said.

She added that the middle school teachers “were very involved,” too and “did go above and beyond to encourage” her older daughter and keep lessons “interesting” and “dynamic.”

“We would love for things to be normal, but they did have a good end to the school year,” Stratton said.

She said she thinks HCPS officials are “doing a phenomenal job preparing for the switch to virtual learning” in the fall.

“I think it’s going to be a much different experience for families than the spring,” she said.

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