BEL AIR — Harford County Public Schools reverted back to virtual learning this week as COVID-19 transmission surges across the county alongside a nationwide spike. At a board meeting Monday, administrators called the numbers staggering.
“We were below five cases per 100,000 in late September. As of today, we are over 30 cases out of 100,000,” said HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson. “We are now at six times the rate we were at just a couple months ago, so that was part of what necessitated us making the change.”
Supervisor of Health Services Mary Nasuta echoed Bulson’s concern. She also pointed to the positivity rate, which was 4.6 on Nov. 1 and had almost doubled to 8.73 by Monday, Nov. 16.
“Take this virus seriously. Wear your mask, socially distance six feet, wash your hands often, stay home when you’re sick,” Nasuta said. “With positivity this high, it is really important that the community avoid crowds, and that means considering having Thanksgiving with just those who live in your immediate household.”
Katie Ridgway, the district’s Risk Manager, said that classroom safety is the cornerstone that guides her work. In light of the county’s COVID-19 numbers, the decision to close was clear.
“Safety can have a wide ranging definition, from what playground equipment we choose to what field trips we can go on,” she said. “But right now, the biggest thing that we’re looking at is what level of in-person service is safe during a pandemic.”
After abruptly switching to virtual learning in the spring and then starting the fall semester much the same way, many hoped that the rollout of a one day per week hybrid reopening would hold steady. Some parents have protested at board meetings to demand a faster reopening, while others have expressed safety concerns and urged a more cautious approach.
Parents often take advantage of the public comment function at board meetings, calling in to express their concerns or question board members. However, no members of the public called in for public comment at Monday’s meeting.
Administrators seemed to anticipate that unless the county’s numbers turn around dramatically, in-person activity in schools would be limited for some time. They have declined to set a date for reassessing the status of reopening, but have said it depends on when the numbers begin to trend in the right direction.
At Monday’s meeting, administrators discussed plans for restarting athletics programs, which they anticipate will be held up until at least February. While classes could certainly return before athletics, the timeline is a useful window into administrators’ mindsets.
“If metrics really improved, there’s still a chance we could do winter athletics, but realistically we believe that Feb. 15 for fall athletics might be more realistic,” said Michael O’Brien, the executive director of secondary schools instruction and performance. “Starting athletics in February outside — it’ll feel different, it’ll look different.”
Reports on learning progress paint a rosy picture while acknowledging challenges. O’Brien commended staff for working to accommodate the switch back to virtual learning.
“Any family in need, whether it’s a technology need, a mental health need, or they see their first quarter report card and they’re worried about the achievement of their kid — please reach out to the principal,” he said. “The principals can help. The counselors are on standby.”
Renee Villareal, the executive director of elementary school instruction and performance, said that anecdotal reports from staff indicate that many students thrive in the virtual learning environment. She said the transition proceeded easily.
“Due to our elementary school administrators, their faculty and staff’s organization and attention to detail and care for their students, they experienced, in my opinion, a very smooth transition back to virtual learning,” she said. “We’ll be ready to pivot again when the need arises.”
The district has worked to meet the needs of students who are challenged by the return to virtual learning.
They have set up 583 students with access to connectivity hotspots, seeking to assist students without reliable access to a stable internet connection. They also distributed over 50,000 take-home meals on Friday, and are bracing to resupply with 60,000 meals this week.
Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Deborah Judd presented a report on the first quarter budget, which she said is holding steady. Losses in some areas — purchases of personal protective equipment, for example — may be offset by saving in others — a lower energy bill, perhaps.
Turning attention forward, though, the picture is blurry. It’s difficult to make projections months in advance even during a normal year, she said.
“This year is obviously not a normal year, and projecting through June 30, 2021 is even more difficult, if not impossible at this point,” Judd said. “It’s really a day by day, month by month picture that we’re reviewing and monitoring. It’s really hard to say exactly where we will end up.”
She asked the board for more time to put together the budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year.
Normally, the district would bring the proposed budget forward and give the board time to ramp up community engagement through budget work meetings, where parents could ask questions and express concerns. She indicated that the district is waiting on key budget information from the state.
“That would give us as much time as possible to get information from the state so that we can build that in,” she said. “We would like the extra time to be able to prepare a budget that includes as much information as we have.”
The board voted unanimously to delay reading the budget proposal until January, which may limit the extent of public engagement.