HARFORD COUNTY, MD — The Harford County Board of Education approved administrators’ proposal to hold the first semester online while also establishing in-person learning centers. The plan presented by Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson was approved, 8-1.
The dissenting vote came from Tamera Rush, who represents Council District D, which includes the northern part of Harford County.
Approval of the virtual learning plan came after hours of discussion, with board members asking questions of school system leadership on logistics.
While a hybrid model consisting of in-person and virtual instruction had been considered in recent months, Bulson said it would not be feasible to educate the more than 37,000 students enrolled in Harford County Public Schools in that format.
“We were not going to be able to deliver logistically to provide a good instructional program” and deliver on safety, Bulson said.
Coronavirus data in recent months showed an increase in spread that gave leaders pause, as cases of the virus began to spike, he added. Officials saw children getting the virus too; previously it had been thought children were less susceptible.
“Every other district in this state also began moving toward fully virtual,” Bulson said. “There is no single metric,” Bulson said, that administrators considered in the proposal.
“This was not about politics,” Bulson said. “This has not been about a political decision.” He said it was about public health, and “things seem to change daily” as far as the data.
Members of the community also varied in their opinions about how to proceed with education.
At the outset of the more than five-hour school board meeting, letters were read for over an hour from community members weighing in on the issue. There were hundreds of letters, most in support of in-person instruction. A comparable amount of letters had reportedly been received before the last board meeting on the matter, and those were in support of virtual learning.
Virtual learning centers will help provide in-person instruction under the new plan, Bulson said.
“We absolutely understand the impact not being in-person has on our students,” Bulson said. “We’re well aware.”
Schedules For Elementary, Middle, High School
The “goal was to create a consistent schedule,” Bulson said of his plan.
For elementary school students, he added, the idea was to create a schedule that would “require a lot of synchronous time.”
The middle school and high school schedule is easier to follow than the elementary school one, the superintendent said.
With virtual learning, internet connectivity was a concern, especially in the northern end and eastern side of the county in the Churchville area, officials said.
Harford County Public Schools will be able to purchase hot spots for the 383 addresses in Harford County that do not have broadband access, Director of Technology Drew Moore said. He learned that grant funding for the hot spots was approved through the state Monday.
However, Moore said the hot spots would not solve the issue of lack of service for many students.
For “many of those areas in the northern end of the county due to geographic and topographic challenges, even a hot spot is not going to work,” Moore said.
School Supplies, Devices
Harford County Public Schools will post school supply lists soon, and some schools have reportedly posted them already.
Previously, Harford County Public Schools said every teacher and student from kindergarten through grade 12 will have a device.
Kids from kindergarten through 9th grade will get Chromebooks, while those in grades 9 to 12 will get Microsoft laptops.
Bulson said 27,000 Chromebooks were ordered, and many had not been delivered. About 13,000 were coming the third week in August.
“We’re short 14,688,” Bulson said Monday night, and there was no projected delivery date.
Learning Support Centers
To ensure everyone has access to online learning resources, Harford County Public Schools is preparing to open virtual learning support centers for the 2020–2021 academic year.
The centers will be run and staffed by Harford County Public Schools employees.
Learning support centers will be open on all school days, officials said.
The centers will have two adults per eight students in accordance with the desire to prevent large gatherings, Bulson said.
“If we are able to increase our capacity … we will absolutely revisit that,” Bulson said of the learning centers, which will require personal protective equipment.
At this point, Bulson said 2,519 students were scheduled to go into the Harford County Public Schools’ learning centers.
“We are starting a waiting list,” Bulson said. “It was our intention to serve all those students, not in every single school but in a large majority of them.”
At first, Bulson said he was confident these centers “would not be contributing to Harford County’s infection rate.”
During the Q&A portion of the meeting with school board members, however, the superintendent said Harford County Health Officer Dr. Russell Moy and he discussed that time would tell.
“We’re not going to know if it had an impact on community transmission of the virus for a few weeks,” Bulson said. “After a few weeks, we’ll see what the impact has been.”
That first quarter of the fall semester ends in the first week of November, which Bulson said he thought would come quickly and could bring additional concerns.
“We also don’t know if flu season complicates things,” Bulson said, since flu symptoms were part of the protocol for closing down the centers.
More communication on the learning centers will come at the latest by the end of next week, he reported Monday, Aug. 10.
The 10-month special education staff is not working over the summer and has not yet communicated with families.
“Our plans right now are being developed for the implementation of the IEP” so professional development time in August will be used to go through the plans with staff, Director of Special Education Mike Thatcher said.
About 5,000 families who require these services will be contacted in September and early October.
“We have been garnering a lot of questions,” Thatcher said. “We are going to have a virtual town hall meeting to address some of those questions and some live questions.”
That will be Wednesday, Aug. 19, in partnership with the Citizens Advisory Council, so that the coordinators closer to the work will be able to respond to questions.
The Maryland Department of Health reports that childhood vaccinations have fallen since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a trend consistent with their counterparts nationwide.
Vaccination rates decreased by 46 percent from April 2019 to this April among those under 18, state health officials said. To reverse the trend, the Maryland Department of Health won a $250,000 grant from the Pfizer Foundation to conduct outreach.
“We are working closely with community and health partners to make vaccinations easily available and safe for families, even as the pandemic continues,” Secretary of Health Robert R. Neall said in a statement. “We strongly encourage Maryland families to take care of their health and make an appointment for important visits and essential care, like vaccinations.”
Pediatricians and primary care providers have protocols in place to make health care safe.
“There is a great concern nationally,” Bulson said, that immunization rates were low. “It is a requirement in the state of Maryland that vaccines are up to date.”
People must be “very vigilant” about getting the vaccines that are required, Bulson said.
Bulson said meal distribution was dependent on federal waivers.
People will need to watch for changes, as they will likely need to reapply for free and reduced-price meals, which will be distributed at the learning centers.
After the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) postponed the high school fall and winter competition season, Harford County Public Schools aligned its policy and announced it would be postponing all face-to-face athletic practices, competitions and conditioning for fall and winter.
More would be coming on the topic at the next state board of education meeting, Bulson said.
The Way Forward: What Will School Look Like Next?
The Maryland State Department of Education is requiring all school districts to post their finalized reopening plans on their respective websites by Aug. 14.
School leaders statewide are waiting for clarity on stage three and guidance about what a full return to instruction would look like, the superintendent said, noting Maryland remained in stage two of. its reopening.
Conversations about bringing back small groups will be “ongoing throughout the fall,” Bulson said. “If there’s a chance to do that sooner, we will certainly be watching that,” Bulson said.
Responding to a board member’s question about what returning to in-person school would look like, he said: “We anticipate 30 to 50 percent” may choose not to return, but that statistic varied based on polls.
“More of a return to traditional instruction” is more likely than a hybrid model, Bulson said: “But I don’t know which of the current safeguards we need to carry forward.”
This article originally appeared on the Bel Air Patch