BEL AIR — About a dozen students, parents and teachers expressed frustration, concern and anger with the Harford County Public Schools (HCPS) reopening plan at a virtual board meeting on Monday, Oct. 12.
During the meeting, teachers and parents gathered at the HCPS administrative headquarters to advocate for both more aggressive and more cautious reopening strategies. Many feel as though the district should prioritize bringing students into classrooms for face-to-face interaction with teachers. Others, however, are concerned about the risk of COVID-19 spreading through school buildings.
One parent, Reagan Bennett, said she plans to pull her children out of HCPS and criticized the board for supporting a reopening plan which she said lacks community support.
“You should not be surprised by the parents and teachers protesting outside the building tonight,” she said. “At the last meeting there was not one parent, teacher or other stakeholder commenting in support of the revised plan, and yet you sent it forward anyway.”
Ben White, a science teacher at Fallston High School, hammered the reopening schedule.
“I have been a teacher for 22 years — this is my 23rd year here — and I have put up with a lot of weird decisions,” he said. “But this is the first time I felt unsafe.”
The district’s hybrid reopening plan includes gradually bringing students back for in-person learning, at first once and then two days per week. Remote students have four days a week of virtual learning, with Fridays set aside as a flexible day for teachers to prepare lessons, follow-up with students individually or schedule additional lessons as-needed.
Under the current reopening schedule, HCPS students in kindergarten, first and second grade returned for one day of in-person learning this week. Students in preschool and grades three through five will return for one day a week starting November 4. Two weeks later on November 16, secondary students will begin attending one day a week. By December 7, the district hopes to be able offer two days a week of in-person instruction across all grades.
In schools, masks and social distancing will be required. Maintenance workers will sanitize high-touch surfaces regularly. Assistant Superintendent for Operations Cornell Brown explained that the HVAC systems would run before and after classes to maximize ventilation.
Guidelines that students maintain six feet of distance shaped the district’s reopening plan, according to HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson. Most classrooms can accommodate eight to 12 appropriately distanced students, and the district’s average class size is 25.
For this reason, Bulson explained, proposals that call for bringing more students back more quickly can’t be scaled up while respecting the six feet rule. School buildings either reach capacity, or there aren’t enough teachers to stay with smaller groups of students.
Bulson acknowledged the frustrations arising from the reopening plan, but stressed that the district is trying to accommodate a wide range of needs from students and teachers.
“We have one group who feels very strongly that we should be moving much more quickly. We have another group that feels equally strongly that we’re moving too quickly,” Bulson said. “We have a plan that I believe is deliberate. It’s very incremental. It’s a plan that goes down the middle between those two groups, and compromises are often unpopular.”
Across the district, about 40 to 50 percent of students have opted out of the hybrid reopening, electing to remain fully virtual for the time being.
Amy Tucker, whose husband is an HCPS educator, condemned the hybrid plan in no uncertain terms.
“The only things I see coming out of the hybrid model are even more overworked stressed anxiety filled teachers, students who are even more lost now that they have to navigate multiple learning environments, parents who must also deal with multiple schedules for the children and the creation of a high-risk work and learning environment,” Tucker said. “This hybrid model in no way feels like it was chosen to benefit anyone.”
Executive Director of Elementary School Instruction and Performance Renee Villareal shared a number of concerns the district has related to asynchronous learners. She said there are about 1000 students who are not able to access live instruction during the day, placing a burden on teachers who must pre-record lessons to be accessible at any time.
She hopes the hybrid model will get those students back into class and ease the workload on teachers, and in the meantime is working to develop a system through which teachers can record live lessons.
“This asynchronous piece is a heavy lift, and we pushed hard to get these teachers to be able to record live because we knew that the pre recording was very difficult,” Villareal said. “It will ease the workload tremendously once they can do that.”
Villareal said she visited classrooms where students were returning, and saw promising signs that the hybrid formula was working.
“We saw happy children,” she said. “I saw teachers really able to interact with the children that they had in person and interacting with those students that were distance learners at home, and they really were doing it very naturally. It was impressive.”
Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, criticized the district for failing to communicate with families about their options ahead of the hybrid reopening. She said messages from the district are like a game of telephone, changing from person to person.
“I genuinely believe that you value your employees, but you are breaking them,” she said. “We are putting our faith in you as leaders of the district and we want to be able to accomplish much more if we can work together.”