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An alternate plan for Harford school reopening, with more, but not all, students in the classroom | COMMENTARY

Recently, Harford County Public Schools proposed an online-learning only plan, in combination with “virtual learning centers.” I would like to offer an alternative hybrid plan. First, though, here are the issues that the current HCPS plan poses to our community.

It potentially disenfranchises single-parent households. Many of these families will now be faced with a very difficult choice: (1) do I go to work and have my child stay home for e-learning, (2) do I send my child to the virtual learning centers, which could be especially difficult depending on their age and education need, or (3) do I quit my job and do my best to help my child navigate the e-learning?

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Two income households are facing similar challenges, and will have to decide if one parent is willing to quit their job (and drastically reduce the total income) in order to supervise their child.

It potentially puts many children and their families at risk by jeopardizing food security for children in low-income families throughout the county. Many families, just like when I was a child and relied on a free breakfast and lunch with HCPS, rely on this nutritious resource and don’t have the ability to make an extra trip to the proposed food-pickup location.

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Our teachers and school administrators are often the ones on the front lines who identify sexual or domestic abuse a student is experiencing at home. This happens through getting to know the affected child and by becoming a trusted adult figure in that child’s life. This trust is very difficult to establish virtually. An all-virtual learning environment may increase the likelihood that sexual or domestic abuse could go unnoticed.

It is vitally important to consider the irreparable damage and crucial time lost for the students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP), most notably our special needs students, many of whom have already suffered significant developmental regression in the spring and summer. A virtual learning environment, especially for our special needs students, is essentially useless and will negatively impact these children for the rest of their lives. Special needs children will face a significant regression in mental and social development, if they’re not able to get the face-to-face interaction that is required by the IEPs. In full disclosure: I am not only advocating for the more than 5,000 students with IEPs in Harford County Public Schools, but I am also the father of a special-needs child and the husband of a mother trying to figure out how we are going to help our son through this.

I’ve also learned of an alarming amount of families who have decided to pull their children out of HCPS for a variety of alternative reasons. If this comes to pass, this will have a devastating effect on the 2021-2022 HCPS budget, since the school funding dollars follow the child in Maryland.

I would like to propose an alternative learning structure that would help mitigate the above problems. In my proposal, I emphasize choice, for parents and teachers alike. I am proposing a reconfiguration of our current learning environments and classroom space that prioritizes children who are most likely to struggle in an e-learning environment.

Students in grades 7-12 are typically more mature and independent. They cannot only stay at home alone, but they are generally able to navigate the virtual learning centers with minimal supervision. I am proposing that all 7-12 graders go to a 100% virtual learning model with the following exceptions: special needs children, children with certain IEPs, and children taking certain hands-on technical classes. This frees up significant space in our public schools, which would allow for the redistribution of classes.

For the parents who choose or need their children to go to school: First, we would relocate our fifth and sixth grade students to the classrooms in high schools across the county.

Second, we would relocate our third and fourth grade students to the classrooms in middle schools across the county.

Third, we would relocate our Kindergarten through second grade students to the classrooms in elementary schools across the county.

This would significantly reduce density in each of those grades in each of those buildings, allowing us to social distance, while educating in person as these students so desperately need. For any parent who would rather choose the virtual learning option, they would have the full choice to do so. Special needs students whose parents prefer they study from home would be given additional options to make sure their IEPs could be fulfilled.

In regards to staffing these redistributed classrooms, we would give our teachers choice. Teachers who may be vulnerable to COVID-19 or who do not feel safe teaching in person could choose to teach virtual classes. Teachers who are not vulnerable, or who want to teach in person would be able to choose to do so. Organizing this will take heavy lifting and compromise by many of the stakeholders.

Finally, I want to address school bus transportation in my proposal. I propose a bus schedule that mirrors the pre-COVID-19 bus schedule.

Elementary schools would stay on the elementary school schedule. Middle schools would stay on the middle school schedule. And high schools would stay on the high school schedule.

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HCPS, after receiving the data on which students are enrolling for classrooms and which are enrolling online, could develop new bus routes that encapsulate the need. I am sure that this plan can be improved, and I am calling on all stakeholders to join me in a collaborative process to properly vet this plan and see if this is a feasible alternative to 100% virtual learning plan. Our teachers are essential. This urging to consider this proposal is nothing but a compliment to and recognition of the value of our educators and how essential they are. I hope our educators take this proposal as the high praise that it is.

Del. Mike Griffith is a Republican representing District 35B covering Cecil and Harford counties. He can be contacted at mike.griffith@house.state.md.us.

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