Feb. 24—Harford County Public Schools' students will likely see a return to full-time, in-person learning for the start of the 2021-22 school year, so long as COVID-19 metrics continue their current drop, although parents could still opt for their children to learn virtually.
"Barring any major change, we are developing a plan for what would, essentially, be five days of in-person instruction at the majority of our schools," Superintendent Sean Bulson said during a Board of Education meeting Monday evening.
Fifty-three out of 54 schools would see students return full-time when the 2021-22 school year begins in early September, with the Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen would then serve as a hub for students who still opt for virtual learning.
That facility, which provides a variety of services to students in seventh through 12th grade, including "positive behavior intervention supports," could have a new name by the time the next school year starts. The school board unanimously approved a request Monday by the superintendent to announce the school system's intent to rename the facility.
That approval kicks off a 60-day process during which members of the public can submit potential new names. The board would then vote on the name, going with either a submission from the community, the name "Swan Creek School," as recommended by the superintendent, or a name of the board's choosing, according to Patrick Spicer, general counsel for HCPS.
Michael O'Brien, executive director of middle and high school performance, noted that changing the name will help "remove the stigma associated with the building," which he described as "such a wonderful place that is meant to meet the unique needs of so many of our students."
Changing the name is a larger part of program changes slated for the alternative education program, for which HCPS officials have been planning for several years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials have been working to develop blended virtual learning programs, with the CEO serving as a hub for those programs. That work has been accelerated by the pandemic with the majority of Harford's nearly 38,000 students learning remotely this year.
"We know now, post-COVID, that we are going to have students who want to remain virtual," O'Brien said. "We believe the alternative education program will be the best way to serve our families."
Officials are planning two concurrent blended virtual programs, each with dedicated staff. One, which is tailored to middle and high school students, offers a combination of two days in person with a teacher and the other three days working on an asynchronous basis.
Asynchronous days give students a chance to complete their coursework and meet with teachers for assistance, as well as take care of other tasks such as college courses, jobs or apprenticeships, caring for family, participate in school activities or clubs, and using mental health supports and services, according to Rob DeLeva, the alternative education principal.
The other option, designed for kindergarten through 12th grade, is a fully virtual program students would access from home. Students would follow the same HCPS curriculum as those learning in person, they would just do so virtually.
"Both blended virtual programs do allow for students and families to have access to a personalized instructional program," DeLeva said. "They can still obtain support services as needed."
Officials are finalizing their application to the Maryland State Department of Education to put the blended virtual programs in place. They plan to submit the application, which is being crafted with input from a variety of groups, by March 10, according to Rebecca Pensero, grant coordinator of eLearning for HCPS.
They would then advertise the program and seek family registrations in May, should the state approve the program application and building name change.
Pensero acknowledged the challenges presented by virtual learning for students and parents — the board heard from a number of parents during the public comment portion of the meeting, urging members to have students return to in-person learning five days a week this spring, rather than the planned hybrid. They cited the growing toll virtual learning is taking on their children's academic achievement and emotional health.
"Our community needs you to take ownership to get these kids back in the classroom, five days per week in person," parent Regan Bennett told board members. "It has been almost a year, and this cannot continue."
Pensero highlighted some positive aspects of virtual learning, such as students of all ages becoming comfortable with technology such as email, video conferencing and using multiple programs at once.
The school system also now has a 1-to-1 ratio of electronic devices to student, a goal HCPS officials have had for a number of years. Harford officials have been able to give every student a laptop this year thanks to federal funding.
"We can now use as this solid foundation for a [blended] program here in Harford County," she said. "We're building toward long-term options for students that best fit their educational, social and emotional needs."
The current plans for returning to school, starting next Monday, call for elementary students in person twice a week and remotely the rest of the week. School system officials are looking at going to four days a week in April, depending on conditions with the pandemic.
Middle and high school students are scheduled to go back one day a week starting March 15, and they could be bumped up to two days a week before the end of the year, again depending on conditions.
Harford County's COVID-19 metrics have decreased significantly since peaking in November and again in January, according to Maryland Department of Health data. The positivity rate reported for the county was 5.62% Monday, above the statewide positivity rate of 3.9%, which continued its slide over recent weeks.
The seven-day average of new cases in Harford stood at 13.48 cases per 100,000 Monday, above the state's new case rate of 12.78.
Bulson noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent guidance for reopening schools, issued in mid-February, will serve as a guide as Harford officials reopen schools and consider how soon to add more days of in-person instruction, but the main metric will be how local operations are affected and the level of disruption caused by staffers and students having to quarantine or isolated if exposed to COVID-19.
Depending on the trajectory of cases, officials "could move pretty expediently into a two-day-a-week hybrid in our middle schools," Bulson said.
He also acknowledged guidance from CDC and state officials that the rate of staff vaccinations "aren't the deal breaker for whether we're in or out" of school.
"Continuing to make progress on the vaccines certainly provides a different level of safety, a different level of confidence ... having more students in is something we can move a little more aggressively on," Bulson said.
The Harford County Health Department is planning vaccination clinics over the next four Fridays for un-vaccinated school workers.
A total of 1,600 educators are expected to be vaccinated during the Friday clinics over the next month, according to an email County Health Officer David Bishai sent to educators who had registered for the vaccine. The clinics will include public and private K-12 educators in Harford County and some Harford Community College staff deemed essential personnel, according to the email.
Teachers from all 33 public elementary schools were able to get vaccinated at county health department clinics in late January but a weeklong clinic for secondary school teachers in February was canceled because of the limited supply of first doses the Health Department was receiving.
"This March vaccine drive should succeed in reaching over 90% of eligible priority 1B educators," Bishai wrote.
Aegis editor S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.