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Harford schools make right call going all virtual, with unique twist other Maryland schools should consider | COMMENTARY

Last week, Harford County Public Schools released its draft recovery plan outlining how local schools will operate in the fall once summer break is over.

Presuming nothing had changed with the State of Maryland’s recovery status from the coronavirus, currently in stage 2, Harford would’ve implemented a hybrid model of learning, with students learning virtually some of the time and attending schools on an alternating schedule.

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It would’ve been a terrible idea and we had planned to use this space to say as much. It seems that, after Monday’s Board of Education meeting, the leaders of HCPS realized the same thing.

On Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours before a online town hall to discuss the draft proposal, HCPS sent a notification that the meeting was postponed until Thursday night and a revised plan released Thursday morning. It wasn’t simple revisions either, rather a drastic change to say school would be taught virtually through the first semester.

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It was absolutely the right call, for reasons we’ll address shortly. But it was the added wrinkle of Learning Support Centers, where a small number of students would be allowed to come into buildings to get internet access, staff support and, perhaps most importantly, a safe place to stay during the day, that make this an even better idea.

There are still details to be worked out between now and when plans must be submitted to the state Aug. 14, but it seems like a good compromise that, while not perfect, keeps students and teachers safe by limiting the spread of COVID-19, but still helping some parents get back to work or giving children the support they need.

No other school system in the state that we are aware of has proposed this model, but we’d recommend they take a look at what Superintendent Sean Bulson and other HCPS staff have presented.

While there are certainly a group of parents who will argue for all in-person instruction, we’re skeptical of any such plans. To bring students and teachers back to the classroom now could be an unmitigated disaster.

After all, there is still so much we don’t know about the coronavirus. Believe it or not, by the time school starts in September, the pandemic’s grip in the U.S. will just barely be reaching the six-month point, even if it has already felt like an eternity to some.

It’s also fascinating to use that many people somehow expect children — major spreaders of other respiratory diseases like the cold and the flu — to practice good hygiene, wear masks and properly social distance during the school day, when we can’t even get adults to do so consistently.

Yes, there is some evidence that children don’t seem quite as susceptible to COVID-19 as older adults. It may be that children are contracting a milder version of the disease, aren’t showing symptoms and, therefore, aren’t getting tested. That does not mean they are not carriers, and that doesn’t account for the adult teachers in the classroom who might catch it from them, or spread it to them to bring home.

Should it turn out that children, even if asymptomatic, are quietly carrying and spreading the disease, there could be seriously dangerous consequences to sending them back to the classroom.

Beyond that, there are also steps we think schools need to take before they can safely welcome all students back. Are there going to be plastic sneeze shields around desks or cafeteria tables? How are desks, lockers and other items frequently touched during the day going to be regularly sanitized? Will students have temperature checks or be tested at the door? What happens when a student or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19? Thus far, those questions have not been answered.

While it remains to be seen how many students will opt to attend the Learning Support Centers, we reckon it will be far, far fewer than if the entire student population were to return on alternating days under the hybrid model. We feel much more comfortable with the same small group of students in the same space each day then if a different group was coming into the same classroom every few days.

The hybrid model also didn’t fully address one of the major reasons there is a push, at least nationally, for children to return to school: Allowing adults to get back to work and bolster the economy.

With alternating student schedules for in-person instruction, it would’ve made it potentially more difficult for parents to return to a normal work schedule and arrange childcare day-to-day. And for students who are going to childcare — be it a neighbor, family member or daycare facility — they would then be interacting with even more people where there is potential to contract or spread the disease.

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That doesn’t take into account the additional drain of parents trying to keep track of what days their child is going to school and which days they are not, and juggling that with their work schedules, especially if they have multiple children of varying ages. Think keeping track of when class meetings were taking place in the spring was tough? Just wait.

Using the Learning Support Center model should alleviate some of that concern.

Certainly, there are benefits of students returning to the classroom. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that “children learn social and emotional skills, get exercise and access to mental health support and other things that cannot be provided with online learning. For many families, school is where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet, and other vital services.”

There is no substitute for in-person learning, and we won’t pretend that there is. But any return to school at this point seems premature, with great potential to cause a spike in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Then we’ll be right back where we started.

School systems are better prepared for virtual learning now than they were in the spring. There is no need to rush students and teachers back into the classroom where there are still so many unanswered questions, and we’re glad Harford County’s education leaders recognized that.

With any luck, they’ll be able to use the first half of the school year to address parents’ and teachers’ concerns about students returning to in-person instruction and, across the state and the country, we’ll have an even better handle on COVID-19. Then, when the time is right, our children can safely go back to school together.

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