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Anne Arundel health officer recommends pushing hybrid learning target date; vaccine is new factor in school reopening

Anne Arundel County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman has recommended pushing the target date to start hybrid learning from February to March, as hospitalizations are on the rise.

Right now the case rate, the number of cases in the county per 100,000 people, averaged over seven days, is 51. That is the highest the case rate has been since state and county officials started tracking in March. Wednesday, Kaylanaraman told the Board of Education he never imagined that the rate would exceed 50.

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The health department has recommended keeping buildings closed to students when the rate exceeds 15.

Hospitalizations are expected to peak in late January and early February, he said. Waiting a month and reopening in March would get them past that peak.

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“We’re literally talking about bringing thousands of people back together at the height of hospitalizations in the pandemic,” he said.

It would also get them past a critical point — the start of vaccinations for teachers and staff members, who will be eligible in late January or early February. Children aren’t getting sick from COVID-19 at the same rate as adults, he said, but the spread of the virus is an issue for teachers and staff.

“It’s not an indefinite ‘we’ll see when we get better.’ It’s a definite ‘we have an intervention and we’re deploying it,’” he said.

The later return would also give the county more time to vaccinate teachers and staff members, who are expected to be eligible for vaccination in late January or early February, Kalyanaraman said, the same time they expect hospitalizations to peak.

“I think that making it to March just puts us in so much better a position,” he said. “I think it’s worth the wait for that period of time, a month.”

The Health Department will revise its metrics for reopening schools this month to consider the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine, Kalyanaraman said.

During public comment at Wednesday’s board meeting, a junior at South River High School, Mattew Fass, said the lack of one-to-one interaction with his teachers has affected his learning in advanced placement and honors courses. Virtual learning isn’t preparing him for life after graduation, he said. He wants to return in February.

“If I am responsible enough to drive a car, then don’t you think I’m responsible enough to wear a mask and stay socially distanced?” he said. “I have respect all of those who want to remain learning virtually, but I want my choice.”

Former school board candidate India Ochs said they need better communication, planning and a lower case rate before buildings reopen.

“Until there is a plan in place that fully meets the needs of all our kids and staff in a safe environment, reopening schools should not even be up for consideration,” she said.

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